He couldn’t be a converso. But he could be a Gitano.
He has the song that echoes of his fathers. It was a primitive cry. A sort of spiritual chant but somewhere along the rustic lines and the shattering jondo voice, is a flowing emotional expression of inner struggle and pride, about perpetual desire and of longing, desperation and hope.
Like a call from a muezzin when it starts, the tone gradually becomes profound. The rhythm growing stronger and more intense, now accompanied by powerful stamping of the feet from a dancer; whose long, pulled back hair is as black as the night, her eyes piercing, while her arms flung widely towards the empyrean. With the encouraging shouts from the hypnotized crowd, the ecstatic strum of the guitar, the pounding of the hammer interrupted by castanets, the music abruptly stops; the tablao ends – leaving almost everyone breathless.
It’s eleven o’clock in Triana, a plebian district in Seville. The air was thin and chilly. Gas lamps casted a soft glow onto the streets and the esquina. Across the river from the barrio antiguo, I sipped the last drop of my cerveza. The cheers, the syncopated clapping and the clanking of glasses inside the dusty tavern could signify only one thing, to the Sevillanos, the night had just begun.
It was only a week ago when my travel partner and I arrived on a cloudless night in Seville. The sad airport, somehow managed to smile from a distance, with its neon lights welcoming the return of her children. It was my first time in the Andalusian capital and to see the letters of my last name all lit up at the top of the roof somehow made me feel almost instantly familiar, as if I have been here before.
That November night, we skipped the city and headed off to the southwestern part of the Andalusian countryside. For two nights, we will be chasing the last days of summer in an 18th century hacienda whose location is only marked by a sign which says km 594 and thereafter, return to Seville. We are thrilled to continue our way to Ronda, one of Spain’s oldest towns and famous for its 100m fissure of El Tajo gorge but that will be a different story.
Without GPS, and relying mostly on the tricky road signs, I started uttering litanies to La Macarena, the weeping Virgin patron of the Sevillanos, in hopes that the next turn would lead us to the Hacienda de San Rafael. After an hour, for no reason, we roved our car onto the right, off the asphalt, traversing the pebbled path passing several olive trees. Each almost obscuring the road and suddenly out of nowhere, against the stygian of the night, a faint glimmer illuminated the unassuming guidepost of a metal cutout pointing to the entrance of the hacienda.
There is nothing as exhilarating as a road trip in the witching hour and the realization that you left the city far behind for another, entirely different world. At dawn, the Hacienda de San Rafael could not be in a more beautiful setting. We woke up looking out over the endless stretches of earth; the vastness almost engulfing the dense propagation of oak trees and shrubs. Should it have been summer, I could have imagined the hundreds of sunflowers basking from the sun’s radiance transforming the entire panorama into fields of gold.
“Once, this used to be a thriving olive farm. My parents started the restoration. Then my brother, Patrick and I soon took over and began opening our doors to people looking for a hideaway transmitting rustic charm and sublimity”, Señor Anthony Reid Mora-Figueroa narrated. He leans on the couch and gazes out the window as if surveying his small kingdom while giving a pat to the hacienda’s pet dog Bruno. (The Reid’s brothers also run a luxury private boutique hotel – Corral del Rey, nestled in the center of the old town of Seville).
“From here, if you continue south, you will reach Jerez and it’s easy to get lost with the town’s old sherry bodegas,” he added and with a laugh, gave a word of caution, “Just don’t get drunk!”
The next day, the red-yellowish soil tempted me to walk aimlessly barefoot in the garden. The olive trees that covered the road of the last night’s drive now offered sweeping views of the spectacular landscape outside. Excited, I put on my boots and we hit the gas as to have a closer glimpse of the rolling hills and marvel at the Moorish looking fincas that sit on top of them. My travel partner accelerated our rented Fiat 500 passing several farm tractors and dashing through the chalky carretera.
In no time, we reached the town of Jerez de la Frontera, it was midday. One can never resist partaking a sip of the pueblo’s oldest temptation – Sherry wine. The kind of drink of which the British have been addicted to for centuries after Sir Francis Drake ravaged the port of Cadiz in 1587 taking with him 3,000 barrels of Sherry. I had a sip of the heavier kind, Amontillado and Oloroso, and even the dessert wines such as Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel tasted wonderful. But I really enjoyed my glass of Manzanilla and Fino, like white table wines, that I must admit, made me a bit tipsy.
We figured out that it was best to have lunch at Puerta de Santa Maria opposite the city of Cadiz. By ordering large plates of boquerones (crispy fried fish) and a caña (small glass of beer) – the perfect antidote for my noon intoxication. I had always loved to meet and talk to casual local strangers when I travel and true to form, we had been approached by ten different men selling lottery tickets. We raised glasses as we exchanged wishes of good fortune. And good fortune it was, that we were staying at the hacienda that appeared to be untouched by time. It was a great warm up for our trip back to Seville.
The days that followed, we wandered through, in and out of Seville’s old quarters. As a former Roman burg and a Moorish capital, its cobbled stone alleyways, old fortresses and buildings are a strong reminder of a sultry-jumble of cultures and of centuries that seem to mesh in a somewhat seamless aura of antiquity, allure and purity.
It was not long ago that the city suffered from the 2007 economic crisis due to construction bubble and enormous population growth. Ironically, it’s those architectural establishments that had brought more tourists; and tourism has been one of the few areas that keep Seville’s economy in balance. Today the city is like a rejuvenated bull waking up with a big roar.
In Seville, we find ourselves gravitating to one of its many charming neighborhoods and attractions such as the 12th century Catedral de Sevilla built out from a mosque whose minaret transformed into the bell tower, now known as La Giralda. Then there’s the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alcazar or Archive of the Indies that once housed the first caliph of Andalusia, Abdul Al-Rahman III.
As is the case every day in the nearby Barrio Sta. Cruz, the whitewashed walls play a perfect stage for gypsy street artists. I was fascinated seeing the Andalusian cowboys in wide-brimmed hats swagger in the 2000 year old plazas while playful niños race under palms and orange trees. But when in Seville, do what the Sevilllanos do. Eat late and eat where they dine, and even indulge in some lazy afternoon siestas. Enjoy a sliver of jamon iberico, wallow on some bitter oranges and perhaps on occasion or during a Fiesta, join the local crowd for the corrida as they cram inside the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza.
If there’s one thing about the Sevillanos that leaves an unforgettable impression, it’s their capriciousness. Take a trip in April and witness the city transforming itself from the eerie Semana Santa (Holy Week), with its fiercely religious processions of black hooded cloaks to the gorgeous ladies in colorful polka-dots dresses celebrating Feira de Abril (Spring Fair). To resist is futile. Just like losing your way in the labyrinth of streets, one has to go with the flow and discover that there’s charming quirkiness in certain details.
Anytime now, here at the distrito Triana, parties can erupt spontaneously. The night is young. Against some bottles of beer, glasses of Sherry passed around, the howling cheers and encouraging claps – once again, the Gitano clacks his shoes, hands quickly lost in the strum, he belted a deep tearing wail, that after gulping my last cerveza, I arose from my seat. With woozy eyes, I flung my arms towards the heavens, succumbed to the cry and knew that it will all be too early for the noise to dissipate into a soft hum.