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07.16.07

cordoba


Listen to Manuel el Agujeta - "Cuatrocientos Son Los Mios"
Buy
Grands Cantaores Du Flamenco, Volume 8

(Day three of the Spanish travel junket.)


An austere hotel breakfast, then off in the bus to visit an olive oil mill on our way to Cordoba. We pull up on the outskirts of Baena, after driving through what feels like a hundred miles of olive groves, stretching off in orderly lines over the less orderly hills and into the distance. The Nunez De Prado olive oil buildings are immaculate, and workers are putting a fresh coat of white paint on the walls as we start our tour. Paco, the older brother who heads the family firm, is a charming older gentleman in a blazer and tie with the manner of a vintner, which isn't surprising since his family came down from the north over 200 years ago to get into the olive oil business.

He takes us on a tour of the immaculate - and mostly silent - plant. The olive harvest was, of course, last fall, so most of the machinery and pipes are silent right now; only a few men seem to be working in the bottling room, putting the labels, corks and wax seals on bottles of the mill's premium vintage, a cloudy, unfiltered oil with a round, rich taste that finishes with just the right hint of bitterness, an essential part of eating an olive that's somehow worked out of so many cheap olive oils.

There's a dark, tall room full of gleaming stainless steel tanks, and a low, narrow one full of their predecessors - big clay amphoras half buried in the tile floor, where the oil used to be stored; now retained for historical, perhaps even sentimental reasons. Paco Nunez De Prado presides over a little "typical" lunch of ham, olives, cheese and a family egg dish that it turns out I have at home in a Spanish cookbook we recently bought. After lunch, we meet his younger brother - twenty years his junior, and used to being mistaken for his son.



It's hard not to envy Paco Nunez de Prado - charming and dignified without being stiff or aloof, clearly quite happy to be working at something he was quite literally born to do; he can tell people what he does in once sentence and they'll get it without much further explanation. He has a job with a global reach, rooted in a small place and over two centuries of tradition he can claim with his own name. Snappy dresser, too.

We drive past the centre of Baena on our way to Cordoba - a lovely, white-walled town rising up a steep hill, crowned with two churches at its peak. It would have been nice to have spent some time there, but we're already late.

Next stop is the famous Cordoba Mosque, a monument to the last stronghold of Islam in Spain. While every other mosque its size was razed after the reconquista and replaced with cathedral churches, the citizens of Cordoba refused to see theirs destroyed, arguing that since a church had already been built in its centre, and the building reconsecrated, it was unnecessary, even sacrilegious. It's a strange expression of the triumph of Catholic Spain over its longtime Muslim occupation; not one but two churches spiked into the precincts of a vast mosque.

The original mosque was enlarged three times after it was built, the last addition almost as large as the previous two, but finished with less care and a smaller budget as the Moorish occupation slid into decadence. Over a thousand columns would have spread out over its spectacular expanse, like a dark forest lit from the gates and windows all around it sides. The effect has been lost today by the chapels built into the windows all around the perimeter, while the cathedral church inserted into the centre is the most forthright statement of the Christian period at the end of the long Muslim sentence.

Mourning the loss of structural integrity and purity of vision is the default tone most people - our guide included - use when describing the Cordoba Mosque today. I think we should be grateful to see such a perfect physical expression of both history and metaphor, embodied in one very unique building.

At the end of the tour I ask the group to wait five minutes so I can make a quick circuit of the building. I head to the far corner, where our guide says the local parish church is located; I find rows of pews facing an elaborately painted chapel built into what would have been the corner windows of the mosque. The iron gates in front of the altar are locked, but I slip into a pew and kneel for a quick prayer – for my family, for the trip, for a safe voyage home. I promised my wife that I’d try to say a prayer wherever I could, but after morning mass, almost every church we’ll visit is basically a tourist attraction, and if I can’t get myself out to morning mass, I’m going to be praying among the tour groups and picture takers.

Another long lunch at a nearby restaurant; I'm used to eating well in Spain, but it's only the third day and I'm feeling bloated, almost drunk with food. There's the usual profusion of ham, and no end of deep fried appetizers. It'll take weeks to work this off when I get back.

Back in the bus, and a long ride south to a ranch outside Gerena, where a wealthy man raises fighting bulls, horses, and olive trees. Along the way, we pass the Seville airport, where the prototype of the Airbus A380 sits parked in full view on the tarmac, looking like some great ungainly boat. I don't know why it's here - something to do with the pan-European obligations of Airbus, apparently - but the plane geek in me is thrilled to catch a glimpse. The luddite still buried deep inside me is frankly amazed that something like this can get off the ground - its engines quiet, it looks more like an outbuilding to the airport than something that could be in the air in a few minutes.

The rains have left the dirt road into the ranch rutted and potholed, so our driver - the owner of the bus, it turns out - positively creeps along, jostling us every foot of the way. When we finally arrive we see a classic rich man's country home, surrounded by trees and patios and next to a small training bullring. The owner is rarely here, we learn, so he's opened the place up for tours and plans to set up a 12-room hotel by next year.

The group gets in a trailer pulled by a tractor and head out into the fields where the bulls spend their days, lit by the setting sun. They're magnificent animals; fourteen of them, we're told, have already been sold for the upcoming corrida season, and are living out their last days as we watch them. It's hard to feel that sorry - as far as livestock goes, their life is an order of magnitude better than that of feedlot cattle or a dairy cow. I'm probably the only person in the group who isn't offended, or even troubled, by bullfights; one of the women in the group says she feels sad that such magnificent animals have to die - most people would probably put it that way - but I point out that these magnificent animals probably wouldn't be here if they weren't being bred for their ultimate end. Without the corrida, they simply wouldn't exist.

We have another snack of beer, ham, olives and Manchego cheese as the sun sets, then pile back onto the bus for the long ride to Seville in the dark - after retracing the jolting, bumpy ride down the rutted dirt road. There's dinner waiting for us, which we struggle to sample before heading off to bed.

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© 2007 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters, a conservative catholic, a professional photographer, tv and movie critic, and ten years ago i would have told you that this was impossible. then i would have taken a swing at you. i might have been drunk. i look nothing like william powell.

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