The view from my southeasterly-facing porch — the enchanted castle of Almodóvar del Río (Córdoba, Spain)

View of the castle of Almodóvar del Río at dawn — looking eastwards

Being forced to stay at home because of this disgusting virus certainly does make one reflect. I am lucky enough to be living in the country so I can still enjoy nature that is blooming all around — every morning I am greeted the bluetit that alights on my bedroom grille — and I listen out to the variety of springtime birdsong, from the insistent ‘ka ka ka ka ka’ of the hoopoe (which I originally mistook for a woodpecker because of its long beak) to the strident ‘caws’ of the buff-coloured magpies as they bustle, push and shove their way to the most profitable spot on the mulberry tree in order to pluck off the fattening fruit from the laden branches that dip so low they almost touch the ground.

 And in the background, while I am writing this blog I can hear the melodious warble of the thrush and the distant song of a nightingale; and on the nearby eucalyptus and Pride of Persia trees I can hear a pair of stone chats talking to each other with that distinctive chinking sound of theirs.

The pride of Persia tree with fragrant purple flowers

But enough of birds for now (if you would like to know more about the wildlife around this neck of the woods, or of the very rich biodiversity that can be found in the protected ecological niche of Hornachuelos Natural Park, then you could take a look at my illustrated book An English Lady in Cordova — the Alternative Guide, available from https://www.etsy.com/es/listing/770288445/illustrated-book-self-published-with?ref=shop_home_active_6. Also there are some great photos of Iberian birds on this Facebook page: Aves de España).

Now back to the matter in hand: the enchanted castle. This ancient monument lies about 9 km from my house and about 40 km from Córdoba and crowns the whitewashed village of Almodóvar del Río.

But before relating the legend, I would just like to briefly mention a little bit about its background, one which reflects the very rich cultural and historical past of not only Cordova, but Andalusia as a whole.

The name ‘Almodóvar’ harks back to the time when the Moors inhabited Andalusia, or Al-Andalus as it was known during their eight-hundred year occupation (from 711 to 1492). The village’s original name during these times was Al-Mudawwar-al-Adna, which roughly means ‘round’ or ‘safe’; it refers to the rounded and steep profile of the shrubby hill, La Floresta upon which it is set. During the Moorish (or Arabic) occupancy, each region had its own castle and was ruled by its own caliph; often there was rivalry between the caliphates and also from outside tribes.

The castle of Almodóvar was presided over by Caliph Abd al-Malik ben Qatan in 740 A.D; he served under Caliph of Damascus, part of the Umayyad Dynasty. Due to the rivalry between the various tribes of the Arab world, several revolts took place (such as the Berber Revolt of 740–743 A.D.) which resulted in a shift in power within the ruling Umayyad clan.

The best preserved castle in Andalusia – stage of Game of Thrones

This dynasty held its capital in Damascus but had a major seating in Cordova. It was associated with time of richness and splendour, and so became known as the ‘Golden Age’ of the Moors in Spain (extending from 756–1031 AD more or less).

The Umayyad Caliphate was then succeeded by the Berber Muslim dynasty which included firstly the Almoravids (ruling from 1085–1145 A.D.) and later, the defeating Almohads who ruled from 1147 to 1238 A.D. (This is all fairly approximate by the way—I’m not a historian.)

The legend of the castle dates back to the 11th century when Andalusia was part of the Moorish caliphate, as mentioned before, and under the rule of Berber Almohad tribe (from The Atlas Mountains). The caliph of Cordova (‘Qurṭuba’, in Arabic) at that time was Prince Abu Nasir al-Fatah al-Mamum; his beloved wife was Princess Zaida, now referred to as ‘La Encantá’ (‘The Enchanted’).

However in 1091 (or round about then) the Almoravids launched a brutal attack on Cordova, wanting to claim this prosperous city for themselves. Princess Zaida was whisked off to Almodóvar castle where it was thought that she would be secure, and where she would await the safe return of her prince. Soon after, however, the fortress at Cordova fell, and with it, the prince. His assassination marked the end of the Almohad rule.

It is said that the princess woke up at the exact time of his death and wandered out to the Homage Tower dressed only in a white tunic. She searched long and hard into the horizon looking for her husband. Her eyes though, were met only with the sight of his white stallion galloping riderless towards the castle. She was filled by despair and fell into a state of depression. 

Princess Zaida continued living within the confines of the castle as if a prisoner, accepting the attention only of her handmaids. Every night she would wander to the Homage Tower where she would look out across the Guadalquivir Valley in the direction of Cordova, anxiously awaiting the return of her beloved.

The legend holds that on the 28th of March, one can spot the princess attired in her white gown, forlornly roaming the tower in search of her loved one.

The story is remembered every year when, during the 28th and 31st of March a play is acted out on a stage that forms part of the Medieval market named in Princess Zaida’s honour. The market is called ‘Zoco de la Encantá’ (The Enchanted’s Souk) and takes place upon the slopes of the castle’s Cerro de la Floresta hill.

Well – that’s all for now folks. Hope you’re all keeping well and enthusiastic in your projects and the things that you pursue.

Thanks for visiting me and hope to be back soon…

Easter Week ‘Semana Santa’ of Cordova (Andalusia)

Today is Easter Saturday — a day of waiting, hope, renewal and a second chance. Here in Spain the streets are usually jam packed with the people hustling and bustling about, pushing and elbowing their way through the crowds as they fight to get a better place to see the Semana Santa processions. But this year, what with the virus, things are markedly different — no processions, no outward shows of faith, no dramaturgical representations — just confinement. This is heart breaking for many — but then again, so is the whole dammed situation. Instead, we endeavour to keep this all-so-important week alive via virtual methods and the social media: processions of the past, masses, prayers, meditations and words of inspiration are all posted, televised and shared, making this valued, prized time reachable to thousands. I have posted some of my last year’s photos of the processions of Córdoba on my Facebook (see https://www.facebook.com/gillian.mir.1 )

But I have also included below, an extract from my book, An English Lady in Cordova – the Alternative Guide (available at https://www.etsy.com/es/shop/GillysWork?ref=search_shop_redirect) describing and illustrating some of the Easter Week processions.

I hope you enjoy reading this blog, and thank you in advance for visiting me!

Semana Santa is a hectic, feverish time of pageantry where narrow streets brim with spectators who jostle, shove and push their way to get a better view of the many floats and processions that pass in front of them.

There are numerous gold and velvet-clad Virgin Marys that are borne aloft on these ‘pasos’: they stand with rosy but sorrowful faces and tearful eyes, clutching rosaries in their slender, pale fingers as they rise from a bed of red and white carnations.

They are flanked by highly ornate, golden or silver candelabras from which many curving branches, in silver or gold, hold burning candles, some protected from the breeze by bell-shaped glass.

Silence reigns in a sign of respect as Mary passes by. The only audible sounds are those of the slippered feet of the ‘costaleros’ (statue-bearers) that carry the float aloft on their cloth-protected shoulders and turbaned heads. There is the metallic clinking of the chain as it touches the thurible containing smouldering incense; or whispers from those that are praying in hushed tones. All these muffled sounds are punctuated by the orders that are given by the ‘capataz’ (guide) to the costaleros through the grille of the float, as he manoeuvres them on their blind way; they scuffle forward bit by bit, feet clad in flat canvas slippers or some even barefoot. Often there are scuffles as one costalero will try and elbow another out from under the float so that he (or she) can have the honour of carrying the statue.

Clouds of smoke rise from the incense and are mixed with the heavy, sweet perfumes of crushed roses, spikenard and orange blossom. And overcome by emotion, a heaven-inspired devotee might break out into a lugubrious, flamenco-style ‘saeta’, as he or she is inspired by the poignant scene; others throw bagfuls of white carnation petals from the rooftops onto the fair, sad-faced Virgin as she passes.

Then as the procession continues on its way, and the statue is borne aloft once more after having given the costaleros a short break, people clap encouragingly, crowds follow behind, first the dignitaries, then the ‘penitentes’ dressed in long robes, with tall, cone-shaped ‘capirote’ hats on their heads, with their faces covered by the ‘antifaz’ veil so they remain unrecognised. They bear wooden crosses that are supported against their shoulders or they hold long, dripping candles between their gloved hands.

There are also the ‘madrinas’ who are the patronesses that follow behind: they are dressed in black garb with long, lacy veil ‘mantillas’ securely fastened to their hair with the traditional Spanish ‘peineta’ comb. Behind the dignitaries and madrinas follow the crowds of children dressed in cassocks or uniformed dresses, some holding candles and baskets full of matches or incense. Other children standing among the awe-filled spectators press forward to beg a few drops of the molten wax that drips from the long candles, with which they mould a steadily-growing ‘lucky’ wax ball.

Behind the children comes the brass band that pipes out heart-stirring melodies in time with the thumping of the drums. Each step of theirs is marked out by the solemn drum beat or the clicking of the wooden blocks which uncannily calls to mind the jangling skeletal bones of any historic phantom that might still be lingering in this ancient area.

Other bands are led by the khaki-bereted ‘legionario‘ soldiers who swear allegiance to their velvet-robed Virgin: they pay homage to her by singing out words of admiration, glory, flattery and encouragement, all in time with the raising and lowering of their rifles. Sometimes the soldier that leads his ‘troupe’ also walks with a sheep held by a lead. The legionnaires are very impressive and seem to highlight the seriousness and sobriety of the moment.

Other bands are led by the khaki-bereted ‘legionario‘ soldiers who swear allegiance to their velvet-robed Virgin: they pay homage to her by singing out words of admiration, glory, flattery and encouragement, all in time with the raising and lowering of their rifles. Sometimes the soldier that leads his ‘troupe’ also walks with a sheep held by a lead. The legionnaires are very impressive and seem to highlight the seriousness and sobriety of the moment.

Moody and tangy sounds that accentuate the already intense emotions—ones shrouded in smoky haze as Mary goes nodding on her way, following her Son who leads ahead on another float; He either makes His triumphal entry astride a donkey, with palms at His feet, or sits with the twelve disciples at the Last Supper. On another float, He is sentenced by Pontius Pilate, or He carries the cross, perhaps helped by Simon of Cyrene and accompanied by Veronica who wipes His face.

Then as Holy Week progresses, ‘Jesús’ is seen prostrate in a glass coffin before He finally makes His last appearance on Easter Sunday: then He is seen as a resurrected angel with holes marking his hands and feet.

This is definitely a time—no matter how believing or unbelieving one is—where emotion is intensified by poignancy and devotion; these feelings are all the more heightened by the heady perfumes and incense that fill the air, and where the concoction of feeling and experience is veiled in a time-honoured, impenetrable mystery.

However, all the sorrow ends on Easter Sunday. The week doesn’t culminate in chocolate bunnies and the hunt for Easter eggs, but (as is the case of Priego de Córdoba) the blessing of pastry-encased boiled eggs, known as ‘hornazos’. It really is a sight to see! Crowds gather on the hill known as the Calvario (reminiscent of Golgotha) where there is also a hermitage church. A priest emerges, says a few words—a benediction—then under the ever-watchful eye of the resurrected Jesús, the jostling crowd offers up with outstretched arms these tasty morsels before Him. By some miraculous feat, He waves His arm up and down as He bestows His blessing upon all and sundry.

The crowd sighs with relief—deep, heart-felt sighs that release all the tension and anxiety that has accumulated over the past week. As the blessing is given, a sea of dark heads and olive complexions (and quite a few foreign ones too) nod in gratitude, while some villagers comment on how well He is looking today!

To continue the happy festivity, the day is celebrated with a good lunch, typically ‘cordero’ (lamb) or paella, followed by Easter pastries and cakes, such as ‘torrijas’ (thick slices of bread soaked in milk, beaten egg and sometimes anisette, fried in olive oil and glazed in honey); ‘pestiños’ (fried dough flavoured with white wine, sugared and sprinkled with sesame); ‘monas’ (cakes covered with chocolate figurines); ‘roscos’ and ‘buñuelos’ (small donuts made with sweet wine, and sprinkled with sugar and Moorish cinnamon). This is just to mention a few of the irresistible delicacies!

Well, I hope that I have transported you in place and time and that you have been able to experience a little of what the Andalusians experience and to feel something that is so important to them.

Thank you for your visit — take care, stay well, see you soon!

Nature knows no confinement.

While the population observe confinement in the trying virus-filled days, nature continues expressing itself freely outside, unhindered by our cares.

I have just wanted to share a few photos with you, which I think, underline just how free nature is. To keep this post short and hopefully sweet, I am concentrating only on the sky. I think you’ll like the photos if you like pinks, purples, burnished orange and pomegranate — and even dusky indigos and pigeon greys. Because these are the unrestrained colours of my sky at sunrise and sunset — ‘my’ because I am referring to the sky that forms a mantle and a canopy above my rustic home — a sky in which the colours spread freely, unrestricted in its state of non-confinement.

(And, no, I haven’t photoshopped the photos or retouched them, the skies are often truly biblical skies, especially when Andalusia becomes veiled by the hazy ‘calima’ sand particles in suspension that waft over to the Iberian Peninsula from Africa. These particles diffract the light, accentuating and diffusing the matinal and twilight colours.)

So here goes:

Looking from my porch in an easterly direction, towards Cordova
Looking west in the direction of Seville (some 70 miles away from my country abode)
Sunrise spied through the young, tender shoots of an olive tree
The sun steadily rises between the olive trees
Sunrise behind the enchanted castle of Almodóvar del Río (lying approx 6 miles east from my home)
And the morning sun still continues in its path upwards…
just to set some hours later.

I hope you have enjoyed the photos — (more about the castle in a further post).

Thank you for visiting — back soon !