Thursday, January 30, 2014

Get Excited About Springtime in Andalucía

Springtime in Andalucía: when the sun shines stronger, when people fill streetside terraces, when festival season starts back up, and when the orange blossom perfumes whole cities. The most southern region in Spain is famous for its sunny stereotype and vivacious residents, but the powerful heat in the summer is legendary—think 40º C (100º F) as the daytime norm. Living in Úbeda last winter, it was cloudy and rainy most days, but once March rolled around, the weather underwent a transformation—and Andalucía came back to life.

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
Cordoban women wearing traditional trajes de gitana
The sun came out (and I wore shorts, thank you very much), it seemed like there was a festival happening every weekend somewhere in the region, and people flocked to bars and cafés to sit outside and soak up the warm, relaxing atmosphere. Let me share with you why I think the months of April and May in Andalucía are simply the best time to experience this exciting part of Spain.

Warmth

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
Streets of Iznatoraf
In Spain’s image abroad, southern Spain is stereotyped as sunny, passionate, and warm; perhaps this is due to Málaga’s claim to fame of 330 days of sunshine every year. However, although temperatures rarely dip below freezing in the winter, few houses have central heating and many people walk to work or to run errands, so you really feel the cold more than you might somewhere else.

Enter the springtime sun: the dreary rain is banished and the world warms up, but doesn’t get unbearably hot. You can walk around without a jacket or appreciate a gentle breeze as it drifts past your hair at dusk. Grandmas pack away their floor-length fur coats, men start unbuttoning the top two, three…even four buttons of their shirts, and women bare their arms in bright, colorful dresses.

Rather than grabbing a quick snack or a coffee at a restaurant’s bar, people instead choose to sit outside in the terrazas and enjoy the warmth of the sun. This custom of going out for an afternoon drink or coffee is so popular in the south that by 6pm it’s often impossible to find a place to sit outside!

Orange blossoms

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
Orange blossoms in the gardens of Sevilla’s Real Alcázar
Probably my favorite part of spring is the blooming of the ubiquitous orange tree. Introduced when Andalucía was part of Muslim al-Andalus, orange trees line countless streets and plazas, such that when spring rolls around, these myriads of trees flower all at the same time. Their delicate, white, five-petaled flowers give off (arguably) the most beautiful scent in the world—a soft, intoxicating fragrance reminiscent of magnolia and wisteria flowers.

When I was in Morocco in late March, the orange trees there were already in bloom, as were the naranjos in Algeciras (far southern Cádiz province). I visited a Sevilla overflowing with orange blossom perfume in April, but it wasn’t until May that similar trees in Úbeda and Jaén province started to flower. More time to enjoy it, I guess!

I can remember sitting out on the terrace of a friend’s apartment in Linares at sunset, simply enjoying the smell of the orange blossom blowing upward from the street below…I can remember repeatedly walking back and forth beneath the orange trees in one of Úbeda’s plazas to breathe deeply beneath the perfume of the azahar…it’s just that good, y’all.

Festivals

The Christian holiday of Easter is celebrated throughout the northern hemisphere not only to commemorate Christ’s resurrection, but also to herald the season of spring, itself a time of rebirth. Within Spain, the two regions that go all-out when it comes to Easter celebrations are traditional Castilla y León to the north and, you guessed it, Andalucía.

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
Semana Santa in Algeciras
During Semana Santa, or Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday, thousands of religious brotherhoods (cofradías or hermandades) don robes and pointy hoods and carry religious floats throughout town in processions called pasos. These centuries-old associations surround statues of Mary or Jesus with candles, flowers, and gold and silver and carry them from their home churches down streets and into plazas; women wear black lace veil-like mantillas supported on upright, jaunty combs, and many folks break out into spontaneous, flamenco-like songs called saetas.

Around this time, cities and villages start celebrating their town fairs. Usually corresponding with bullfighting season, these weeklong fairs can be held anywhere from March to October. Sevilla’s Feria de Abril is usually held two weeks after Easter; Úbeda where I lived celebrates the last week of September and into early October.

Think of these town fairs like a state or county fair in America: fun theme-park style rides or rollercoasters, greasy fried street food, and markets selling locally-produced goods. There will probably be bullfights during the day, your best chance to see this controversial sport art. Men will dress up in formal suits and short, flat-topped hats called cordobeses, and women will put on bright, tight dresses accented with wavy rumples ruffles called trajes de gitana. Local organizations or clubs set up casetas or large tents and serve food and beverages; here the partying goes on all night long.

Cruces de Mayo is another popular springtime festival. The same religious brotherhoods that do the processions during Holy Week set up makeshift bars, blast flamenco music, and construct huge crosses made of flowers in early May to raise funds for their group activities. While you enjoy fresh, informal food served up by members who now wear normal clothes, you can appreciate the pretty displays of flower planters and other knick-knacks significant to the area, like a guitar or a glass of sherry.

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
One of the many patios of Córdoba
My favorite holiday of all is the Patios de Córdoba courtyard-decorating competition. Homeowners in half a dozen neighborhoods in Córdoba pull out all the stops, hanging pink, white, red, and yellow flower planters wall-to-wall and ground-to-roof in their traditional Andalusian courtyards. Residents whose patios that are judged most beautiful by the city are given prizes numbering thousands of euros, so they work really hard to turn their central courtyards into heaven on earth—much like their Islamic predecessors recreated Paradise in their gardens. This 90-year-old competition just gained World Heritage status last year, so expect more and more tourists to flock to these houses.

Snails

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
“We Have Snails! Tasty Tasty!”
From April through June, bars and restaurants all across the south will serve caracoles a la andaluza, Andalusian-style snails. This isn’t like saucy, high-brow French escargots, though; snails are fun finger food slurped down by the cup-full. The little ones are slow boiled in a broth of garlic, fennel, cayenne pepper, spearmint, and bay leaves, and the bigger ones (cabrillas) tend to get cooked in thicker, tomato-based sauces. Both are usually served in glasses or bowls with their broth, which is uncharacteristically spicy by Spanish standards.

When it comes to eating them, you’ve got two options: bring the shell to your mouth and sluuuuuurp ‘em down, or get a toothpick and dig out the snail body from within. Beware—with the latter method you’ll come face-to-face with your snail, so if that weirds you out, just stick to the slurping method. Wash your snails down with the healthy broth!

Watch out for your allergies!

Springtime in Andalucía, Spain
Wisteria-covered stairway in the Alhambra’s Generalife gardens
If you have seasonal allergies like I do, then maybe springtime in Andalucía isn’t the best time in the world to visit. Because agriculture in the south is devoted to one cash crop—olive trees—the high concentration of these plants means that when it comes time for them to release their pollen, they will do so in unimaginably great amounts. One of my friends who lived in a town half an hour away from me remarked that she once saw literal clouds of pollen rising from the olive groves.

My allergies didn’t bother me the month of April, but I was miserable from May until I got up to Galicia in mid-June: drippy nose, drainage, sneezing, the works. I made the mistake of sleeping with my windows open—twice. When I was in Extremadura to the northwest of Sevilla, I had a sneezing attack in my hotel room and went through an entire package of tissues during dinner.

Thankfully when I came back to visit Sevilla this past October, I wasn’t bothered by the olive groves.

Have you ever been to Andalucía in the spring? Did you almost die from your allergies or did you enjoy the warm, fragrant atmosphere? Add your experience to the comments section below!
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