It’s familiar in spite of the fact that the Spanish never colonised India, or any part of it. And, it’s strangely familiar even though we couldn’t speak their lilting tongue. But, the body-language of Spanish people is oddly Indian. Also like us, they dine late and snack enthusiastically!
Then there’s the little known fact that for many generations, Spain was an Islamic nation. It has left a lasting imprint on Spanish mores — their language, food, architecture, even some of their traditional costumes and dances. These perceptions struck us first in the beautiful old city of Seville. For 150 years it was referred to as the city where ‘the heart of Europe beats’— opulent and glittering with riches.
Talking of riches, gold had been ‘liberated’ from the kingdoms of central and South America by Spanish conquistadors, literally, the conquerors. The man who initiated this great inflow of wealth was the famed navigator Christopher Columbus. He and his crew had prayed in the massive cathedral of Seville, which was a mosque. In fact, the altar of the holy chapel, where they asked for the blessings of Mother Mary, was virtually intact but reassigned mihrab of the old mezquita. Columbus’ tomb, in this cathedral, is an ornate coffin carried by royal pall-bearers representing rulers of the four constituent kingdoms of Spain — Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre.
The original mosque was built in the 12th century by Arabs from North Africa who had conquered and ruled Spain till they were ousted by a Christian resurgence. The original mosque was adapted for Christian worship in December 1243. When this 12th century Islamic structure began to collapse in the 15th century, it was re-built as a cathedral. Even so, many features of the old mosque remained.
Apart from the ‘mihrab’, we saw the impressive main entrance of the mosque with its typical Moorish arch. We sat in the dappled shadows of the of the orange tree courtyard where Muslim devotees performed their ablution and rested after their prayers. Also, we walked across to the royal fortress of the Reales Alcazares and its gardens.
Here, amidst pavilions, fountains and flowers, we saw a crest depicting a pillar with a spiral wound around it and the motto ‘Plus Ultra’. The old world believed that two rocks at the mouth of the Mediterranean marked the far ends of the earth — ‘ne plus ultra’ (no further). When Columbus, in his search for the spices of India, sailed through this seemingly ultimate boundary, the motto was changed by dropping the negative assertion. This emblem eventually became the American $ sign.
We found another Indian connection in Seville. A research centre here is devoted to the very Spanish dance — the Flamenco. At the centre, students tapped their heels and clapped their hands under the guidance of an instructor.
It’s said that although the Flamenco has been embraced by the Gypsies of Spain, it is not essentially a Gypsy dance form. Moreover, the Flamenco guitar is called a ‘bejani’ and the dress of both, men and women dancers seem to have been evolved from those of ‘Jat’ and Rajasthani nomadic tribes.
Later, we drove out of Seville, for the day, to Jerez de la Frontera. This was, reputedly, the old frontier between Christian and Islamic territories. In the famed sherry winery of Sandeman, storks sat on their untidy nests atop chimneys and swallows tucked their clay nurseries under the eaves. We walked through cool cellars where black oak casks sat contemplatively converting their grape juice into the famed sherries of this region. They are essentially wines but the process of fermentation differs from other traditional wines.
Wine and dance
It took me back to my childhood, where no formal dinner was complete without sherry glasses on a polished dining table and crystal decanters glowing with Sandeman sherry. In fact, we always thought that the iconic silhouette of the figure with the black cape and the broad-brimmed hat was the mythical sand man who made children’s eyes blink with sleep. The cloaked figure is a brand image, of amazing ‘stickiness’, commissioned by a Scotsman — George Sandeman, who made his sherry winery and its emblem, a household name all across the erstwhile Empire on which the sun never set.
We walked through a gate in the perimeter wall of Sandeman to the highly acclaimed Real Escuela de Arte Ecustre — the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Housed in a graceful palace set in extensive grounds, this is the last word in the world when it comes to the care, training, equipage, carriages and riding of horses.
We climbed up a huge, covered, stadium. It was packed. And then, for two hours we sat enthralled while horses and their riders performed the intricate, stately and very dignified manoeuvre that have been developed over countless generations when men and their horses have moved as one coordinated creature in palaces and farms, tournaments and battlefields.
And all this was done to stirring Spanish music that captured the essence of the courteous Spanish character. It was an unforgettable encounter with a past that is still very much alive and revered today.
Returning to Seville, we dined in a lively Spanish ‘dhaba’ with the fulsome name of Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo. While half of it was a grocery, the other half was a bar and a small restaurant, with just two tables in the kitchen. Within an arm’s length from us was the kitchen counter with flaming ranges holding simmering tureens, sizzling pans and furious activity.
The owner, his wife and women helpers buzzed and called out to the ever-smiling Antonio asking him to bring eggs, olives and wine. We savoured pate with apples and pistachios, Iberian salt pork, heart of artichokes with montilla wine, potatoes with chorizo, Andalusian cheese, accompanied with white wine, orange and coffee liqueur. The whole atmosphere was spirited and vibrant with a sort of self-aware chaos. It was almost tomorrow before we could drag ourselves away. All this proved that the place is indeed, very much like
HUGH & COLLEEN GANTZER