Around the Flamenco Triangle
I’ve always been fascinated by flamenco. Not the woman in scarlet with a rose between her lips – that cliché exists only in the tackiest of tourist shows – but the living art that reaches straight into your heart without the intercession of conscious thought. How better to meet the people and understand the culture than an epic trip by train?
On the way to Moguer
Under a red-orange sun my guide, Francisco, takes us past dusty hills punctuated with tiny whitewashed cottages and round-topped Eucalyptus. In the Sierra de Aracena Nature Reserve we see the rust red trunks of Helm oak trees that have been harvested for cork, and the important Aracena Reservoir that supplies much of Huelva and Seville becaue this area has no lakes. In the distance white shining earth and tiny trees look like miniature models or ancient Chinese art.
We continue past rugged rocks stained with copper-green streaks to the magnificent 10th century hilltop mosque of Almonaster. This lies in castle ruins where Francisco reminisced. On again to a huge statue of Christopher Columbus at the confluence of the Rivers Tinto and Odiel. I visit full-size replicas of the explorer’s boats held in the dock. It’s through such voyages that local Spanish palos (musical forms) incorporated the musical traditions of African slaves and Native Americans. Reintroduced to Spain, these mellower flamenco palos, including guajiras (probably the first of the ida y vuelta palos) and rumba (popularised by great Flamencos such as Tomatito, Vicente Amigo and Paco de Lucia) became ‘cantes de ida y vuelta’ (round trip songs).
We leave for Moguer. This place name is derived from the Arab word ‘to be allowed to leave’.’ It’s time for lunch at the Peña del Cante Jondo a flamenco club venue so steeped in flamenco history and memorabilia that despite my hunger, I struggle to focus on food. However, after a salad of strawberries, peppers and onions drowned in exquisite local olive oil I wonder why. Mid-meal a seven-year-old girl leaves her mother’s knee to illustrate a move they’re discussing. She sings a plaintive Fandango de Rebolla (a heart-rending variation on the upbeat fandango). I get so tied up in the songs beautiful age-old sweet sorrows that I momentarily forget that she is a child.
Replete from a lunch of locally-sourced ingredients we walk to Alajar – the favoured retreat of the monk Arias Montano who edited the Polyglot Bible. We pass ancient twisted olive trees, a low-roofed castle and countless barns. Every lichen-laden tree is a testament to the cleanliness of the air here. Francisco says, “this is heaven on earth’. I marvel at a valley comprising more shades of green than I could possibly count, at the fairy land statements of Arias’ memorial and bell tower, and agree.
At El Cerro de Andévalo we walk to the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. Within its unprepossessing exterior is another world where roughly dressed stone and neutrally coloured plaster compliment a selection of exquisitely decorated tiles. Intricate designs of luxurious azure blues, harvest oranges, browns and bronzes reminiscent of the richness of springtime Huelva form the backdrop. I’m treated to a performance of jondo (deep sad song) in this shrine turned arts centre, facing a beautiful square.
A Fandango de Huelva accompanied by the musicians’ palmas (rhythmic clapping) hushes the audience and raises the hairs on the back of my neck. A semi-circle of flamencos (the word for anyone involved in the art form whether as singer, guitarist, percussionist or dancer) create a series of passionate verses. Their voices are caressed by the acoustics in a place created to share this intimate ancient art form. More fandangos follow, they’re songs of pride as well as loss. At times I find myself paralysed, intoxicated with this synthesis of hundreds of years of suffering. I finally understand the backdrop of images representing worship and the winds of fate.
Afterwards we return to Naranya Hotel Casa Camilo to party over great sherry, good beer and a selection of local delicacies. They include my favourite salmorejo (a thick cold soup of tomatoes), and lamb decadently sautéd in the exquisite Pedro Ximenes sherry. I go to my room in the early hours of the morning, and fall asleep listening to the party downstairs carry on.
Open squares with tinkling fountains, stunning architecture, hidden gardens are a few of the vivid impressions I take from Seville. There can be no better location for Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro or The Barber of Seville. It’s the only place Don Quijote could have started his quest and that the tragedy of Carmen could easily unfold in the back streets or just around the corner. Most good flamenco is close to my hotel in the Barrio Santa Cruz , now that house prices have driven the art from Triana across the River Guadalquivir.
Tribes of flamenco aficionados from all over the world learn the art in this place. I find the displays in the Museo de Flamenco uninformative. They are more a declaration of the art of flamenco as record. So, sadly, is its class. Very late that evening my friend, Esther (a jazz flamenco singer and dancer performing at the Museo on Sunday) suggests a flamenco tablao. It’s an intimate affair in a cramped café under an arch. Clever improvisations and subtleties of movement are greeted by shouts such as ‘esa’ (that’s it), ‘estas mujer’ (you’re [real] woman), and olé.
The early morning train trip to Córdoba is a blur. I’m thankful that I can walk to the station to the hotel. Then it’s off to the Taller de Construcción de Guitarra Española where proprietor Manuel Reyes reels off an impressive list of clients. He explains that the skills of construction are passed down from father to son, that flamenco guitars are different because they’re made of harder woods to be loud enough match the footwork and music, and for the tap plate that protects the guitar from golpe (rhythmic finger taps).
The friend of a local shop owner; a student of ancient Islamic writings at the city’s famous university, shows me the city’s Muslim legacy. This includes an ancient souk located between the Mezquita (a mosque-turned-cathedral) and the 14th century Almodóvar city gate originally known as Bab al-Chawz.
We finish at the ornate Salón de Té de Salma, Casa Andalusí where I meet other local academics eager to discuss the area’s cultural roots. They recommend the Córdoban Equestrian Centre where I see Caballeros Reales (Royal horse-riders). These horse-riders’ antecedents can be traced all the way back to the reign of Abd al-Rahman (724-743). This was the beginning of of the Caliphate of Al-Andaluz from which Andalusia gets it sname.
Seeing the horses’ enjoy performing so much that their riders had to calm their enthusiasm makes me wish I had time to see more.
On the train to Malaga the darkening sky turns from luminous grey-blue to purple as I fall asleep, missing the El Chorro gorge, the serried man-high olive groves, and wake as the train slows to reveal trees and telegraph poles as black silhouettes against a rich navy blue sky, and street lights like golden globes.
My final stop is Restaurant Vino Mio in Malaga where the plentiful food is excellent, the cheerful staff are helpful, and authentic flamenco is performed early enough for young children to enjoy. I devour a final flamenco feast before my train trip to the airport. This has been an emotional storm. A fantastically frenetic five days. Time to complete my ida y vuelta with a quiet flight home.