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See You In Andalusia

Premi John

This summer, we tried something different. Instead of the usual holiday, the family decided to spend a week together at a 'neutral' location. Two of my siblings live in the U.K. and my sister-in-law volunteered to find a villa where our parents could join us from India and we could all spend a week, somewhere in Europe, or to be more specific, somewhere in Spain, Italy or the South of France.

There are many sites on the Internet offering various types of rental accommodation. Not knowing anyone who was in a position to recommend any one of them, we found ourselves having to trust cyberspace. To me, this is a scary proposition. After all, we would only end up thousands of miles from home with nowhere to stay, in the middle of summer! I am the type of person who is nervous about entering credit card information online. But then, you have to have faith sometimes, don't you?

Since we were 4 families, totaling thirteen people, we picked a villa located in the Sierra Nevada region in Southern Spain, based on the fact that it had 5 bedrooms, a tennis court and a private swimming pool. After all, we intended to spend time together. Of course, there were pictures on the website, though I did remember hearing a story from a friend who had vacationed in a house where the only wall in the house with a lick of paint on it, was the one in the photo!

Most of the group arrived in Malaga, in Southern Spain, directly from Gatwick airport in the U.K. and our contingent flew in via Paris, both arriving within an hour of each other. We had hired cars, again, over the Internet. Bear in mind that the European concept of a mid-sized car is pretty small by American standards. Our boys are 19 and 20 years old and we just about managed to squeeze ourselves, 2 suitcases and four pieces of carry-on luggage into the 'van' we had hired.

My brother had been e-mailed directions on how to get to the villa in Orgiva from Malaga airport. Spain has a relatively new network of highways and driving around is quite easy. The guidebook did warn of intolerant Spanish drivers but we never did have a problem. Maybe it was a blessing that none of us knew any Spanish and it is possible that we missed the hand signals that may have been directed at us!! The 100 km drive into the mountains, took us about 2 ½ hours. We stopped along the way for lunch and to get some groceries at a 'supermercado'.

Now, I did mention that none of us spoke Spanish. We were, however, armed with two phrase books and a small electronic translator that often had us in stitches as it had the habit of translating to the word closest to what was entered instead of telling us that it didn't really know!! The good thing about Spanish is that it is pronounced as it is written. Certain letters are pronounced in certain ways, but it is consistent. None of that vaporizing the end of the word off into a nasal modulation, as do the French. Spanish is considered a modern spoken variance of Latin and is the closest to Latin of all contemporary European languages.

There are regional variations of course. When the girl in the local bakery gave us a demonstration of how to say 'Thank You', the Andalusian way, we assumed she had a lisp but later realized that she had indeed demonstrated the correct way to say it! Similarly, I had assumed I would have no need to remember how to say "Speak slowly please" in Spanish, a main item in the phrase-book, as it would be quite obvious from the single words I attempted to string together without the benefit of grammar, that I spoke no Spanish. The locals, it seems, have no concept of non-Spanish speakers and have the charming quality of speaking to you as fast as possible, as if you were no different from any of their neighbors. Not many Andalusians speak English but we managed pretty well with some basic words and grammar out of the phrase book, and lots of enthusiasm and laughter on all sides.

We had some trouble finding the villa as we arrived in Orgiva at siesta time and the house keeper was probably napping the first ten times we called her cell phone. As a result we spent Saturday afternoon getting to know a few folks who had decided to go against convention and have a drink at the bar instead of taking the prescribed snooze, and generally getting to know the lay of the land by driving around the town to areas where the friendly locals suggested we might find Casa La Para, our home for the coming week. An hour later, Paqui answered the phone.

The house had rooms on two floors with dining and sitting areas on both floors. Augustine, the gardener, came by daily to take care of the pool and garden and anything else we might want done. There was a laundry room and the sun took care of the dryer situation. We spent most of our time out doors, under the grape and bougainvillea covered terrace overlooking the lemon grove, or beside the out door barbeque and pool. Rental for the week was about $2800, and remember, this was acomodation for four families.

Grocery shopping in Andalusia was extremely inexpensive. Orgiva is known for a farmers market that takes place at the top of the hill every Thursday. The quality of the fresh produce is unbelievable and I am sure no genetic engineering was involved. The area is known for almonds, figs, olives, and saffron. The many cheeses, especially the goat's milk cheeses are delectable and one should try the Queso de la Almendra, an almond 'peda' that is less sweet than the Indian deserts. Andalusia also produces rough wool rugs and ceramics. Andalusian cuisine features a large selection of local cured meats. Restaurants that cater to tourists often serve combinations, as 'plates' from various regions. Fried potatoes, and fried eggs are a feature in many of these. Of course, one has to try the Paella, a saffron flavored dish in which rice is cooked with seafood, or poultry or both resulting in many variations of the basic dish. The other local 'must-have' is Gazpacho, a refreshing cucumber and tomato-based soup, served chilled.

Having been under Moorish rule for years, there is a strong Islamic influence on the artwork and architecture. Granada, which was a 45-minute drive away, is home to the Alhambra y Generalife. The Alhambra, a massive Moorish palace on a hillside overlooking Granada, and the gardens, must be part of your visit. We should have taken the advice in the guidebook, which told us to call earlier to book tickets. The lines are long and visitors are allowed into the grounds only at particular times. Certain parts of the area are free to visitors and if you wander into those, you cannot reenter the ticketed areas without your ticket stub. Not an easy task when there are 13 people, all going in different directions, and only two hold the tickets, which were issued in groups. Take my advice, if you are visiting, make sure you are given individual tickets and that each person carries one. At night, take a walk to the popular Plaza de San Nicolas, the highest point of the Albaicin. The Alhambra, viewed from this point is spectacular and the area itself, with groups of young people, gypsies playing live music and quaint white washed houses decorated with ceramics and flowering plants makes the walk to the top worthwhile.

The tourist board in Granada organizes Flamenco shows in various old buildings. Spanish music has a strong basis in Eastern and Middle Eastern music, which is evident in the passionate, high-pitched singing style. The Flamenco performance itself, is composed of three parts, dance, song and guitar music. Gypsies are credited with bringing this lively style of expression to Spain. The Sacromonte hill, which overlooks the city from the North, is famous for its cave dwellings. This was once the home of Granada's large gypsy community and many of the caves are still occupied.

One evening, we drove down to the beaches at Motril, on the Costa del Sol. Being on the Mediterranean, the town is also known for it's seafood. Another drive one has to make is into the Sierra Nevada range itself. Trevellez is situated at the highest elevation point on the road traversing the mountain range. As it climbs higher, the drive takes one past spectacular scenery, almond and olive plantations, waterfalls, and quaint villages.

July in Andalusia is extremely hot. If you are looking for a relaxing holiday, this is certainly the place to be. All the 'tennis tournaments' had to be held early in the morning as the weather turned too hot and sunny by 10 a.m. by which time, we had to jump into the pool to cool off. After taking a walk into the town, lounging around on the veranda or playing cards, cooking a simple lunch on the outdoor barbeque or gas stove, and then eating it we just had to follow local tradition and siesta until about 5 which was when the town came back to life. Dinner is eaten from around 9 p.m. onwards until 12 midnight. The Spanish do not understand what the hurry is about come to think of it, neither could we. We most definitely have to go back there... mañana.

When you consider your next holiday, try something different too.

(When not at work at the CTE in Lexington, the sociable cyberwhiz, Premi John putters about her home and garden in Concord where she lives with her family and dog Jerry. )

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In the Alhambra

Nazrit Palace, The Alhambra

View from the Villa

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