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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


A Tale of La Alhambra: Moonlight, Moorish Baths & A Zippo Cigarette Lighter by Gerry Dawes ©2012. A Re-telling Inspired by Guitar Piece Played by Maestro Pablo Saínz Villegas

* * * * *
Many years ago, I wrote a short story about an adventure I had in La Alhambra, Granada's Moorish fortress, one of the most unique, wonderful and emblematic cultural monuments on the planet. The experience occurred in the early 1970s during the eight years I lived in Andalucía, when I had the good luck to visit Granada at least a half dozen times (and have been there a few times since, including on Oct. 17, 2013).

I put the story aside, along with a story--Spanish Spirits to Warm Your Soul at the Gran Café 'El Suizo' in Granada--that I did two decades ago about drinking Jerez brandy in Granada on a cold February night in the superb old Gran Café Granada, popularly known as ‘El Suizo' (now, lamentably closed). The formally attired waiters at El Suizo warmed large brandy snifters with hot water, ritually dried them with a white napkin, then poured a Gran Duque de Alba or Cardenal Mendoza or Lepanto, whose sweet volatized perfume was enough to warm your soul. 

With your warm, rich brandy, you felt immediately at peace in that elegant, classic place and you knew you would sit at those marble-topped tables lost in conversation until the yawns of waiters--some of whom had been serving brandy properly for more than two generations--let you know that it was time to go.

In late January (2009) in Larchmont, New York, at a private recital organized by my friend Hayes Cavanaugh--a lawyer and accomplished jazz musician who loves Spain--all this came back to me as I was listening to Francisco Tárrega's lovely Recuerdos De La Alhambra guitar piece being played by a consummate young Riojan maestro, Pablo Saínz Villegas, who has a flawless touch as silky and elegant as any guitarist I have ever heard. 

Pablo introduced the piece by saying that the composer had been inspired by the fountains of the Alhambra, whose bubbling waters can be heard tinkling everywhere throughout the lovely gardens and magnificent buildings of this most poetic, evocative and romantic of Spain's incredible collection of historic sites. 

The sound of the water is the legacy of the Nasrid rulers who had to abandon this magical place in the face of the triumphant Christian army of Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand in 1492 following, whose long siege of Granada was conducted from the newly built town of Santa Fe, a few miles away. 

It is this sound of water--essentially an unbroken stream of natural music--that is a direct link to the last Moorish taifa of Spain that stretches back more than five centuries. If they returned today with their eyes closed, the sound of the fountains would assure them that they were indeed back home in the Alhambra.

Pablo Saínz Villegas's splendid touch with the guitar, seemingly caressing the strings, never strumming them, but stroking them seamlessly, was as magical as the Alhambra. Shortly into his piece I was literally in a trance. Indeed Pablo Saínz himself seemed transported. His music recalled those tinkling fountains and I was transported back to Granada, literally seeing the places I had been, smelling the flowers in the gardens, recalling the arabesques of the Alhambra's stunningly honeycombed palace halls, seeing the reflecting pools and the fountains flowing, bubbling, tinkling just as the notes were flowing from the string of his gently coaxed guitar.

I had never met Pablo Saínz and I am ashamed to say that I had never even heard of him. (Look in on Pablo's website,
read about his meteoric career and the top awards he has won; listen to his marvelous, magical guitar music; buy his recordings, find out where he is playing and experience his incredible musical touch in person--something, as you have read, that is not easy to forget once you have been exposed to it. [You can listen to his music in the background, as I do sometimes when I am working.]

When Pablo finished and I came out of my trance, I told him that he had taken me back to a night of the full moon in the Alhambra which is the basis for the adventure that follows. 

His music inspired me to dust off this long mislaid story, which I promised to send to him and so I decided it put in on my blog. If you enjoy this story, please let me know. [
In fact, you can listen to Pablo performing Recuerdos de La Alhambra on stage as you read my piece. Pablo's performance will certainly enhance my very modest writing effort.]

A Tale of The Alhambra:
Moonlight, Moorish Baths & A Zippo Cigarette Lighter

by Gerry Dawes ©2012

In the depths of the Alhambra, Robert struck the flint wheel of the Zippo lighter his uncle had given him when he left for his Navy tour-of-duty in Spain. In the lighter's flame, the walls of the old Moorish baths were bathed in a warm glow and the water in the bathing basins reflected the flickering yellow light.

With  the light, Robert, Julia, and Paul Andrews, a Baltimore doctor touring Spain, momentarily lost the spooky sensations they had been feeling as they stood in darkness, which was pierced only by the filtered light of the full moon as it passed through the glass covering the small eight-pointed star-shaped skylights of the 14th-Century baths.

Adding to the escalofriante (spine-tingling) air of being down in this old place in the dark was the fact that what they were doing was totally illegal and they were doing it in a national monument in Generalisimo Franco's Spain.  And they were lighting their way just by a cigarette lighter, which quickly got too hot to hold, and was running low on fluid. Robert gingerly flipped the top on the lighter and the light went out. Juggling it in his hands, he laid it on the edge of one of the baths to cool.

It might have been spooky down there, but, what an adventure they were having, clandestinely exploring sections of the Alhambra that were closed to the public at night! Along the way, before they had reached the baths, they had stood in the shadows, watching as a few people shuffled through the lighted sections that had been approved for the night tour.  

One of those sections was the suite of rooms occupied by Washington Irving, author of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in which the immortal short stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" appeared.   Irving actually lived and wrote in the Alhambra while he was working on A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (a history of the years 1478–1492).  Irving was so inspired by the magical beauty of the Alhambra that he wrote Tales of the Alhambra, a book that is still in print in various editions and is sold in gift shops and book stores in the Alhambra and all around Granada.

It was a wonderful May night. The sky was clear and there was a full moon. The cool blue-white moonlight washed over the old Nasrid fortress, which takes up a whole ridge above the magical ancient city of Granada. Someone had told Paul Andrews that sometimes you could still hear nightingales singing in the Alhambra on nights of the full moon. "Maybe you will be lucky and hear them," the man had said, "they don't like pollution; it is believed that the exhaust from automobiles is driving them away."

Most of the tourists who visited La Alhambra during the day either didn't realize this was one of the two nights per week that the Alhambra was open or they simply did not want to trek back up the hill after touring all day. So, Robert, Julia, and Dr. Paul were sharing the grounds and palaces of this fantastic old Moorish stronghold with at most 20 other people and just a few guards who tended to move around as the main body of tourists moved through.

At one point in the Hall of the Ambassadors, Robert, who was familiar with the layout of the Alhambra, noticed that they were the only people in that section. He looked around for the guards and saw no one. "Follow me," he whispered to the others and moved a short white wooden picket fence-like barrier that was the only thing blocking anyone from entering the closed off areas of this magical palace. "If anyone sees us, act lost and speak only in English," he told Julia and Paul. "Pretend to be grateful that they have found us." 

They crept quietly, treading Indian-like along the passageways, keeping to the shadows when they spotted a tourist or a guard in the lighted sections across a courtyard, whose fountains still bubbled in the night, splashing and gurgling, making the same sounds they did when this remarkable place was inhabited by the Moors back in the 14th and 15th centuries. Always in these Moorish places, there was water, the most prized liquid in world to the desert-rooted Moor. 

The Moors built man-made oases into their palaces and the sound of water was an unbroken link to the past, like music from a bygone era. There were the fountains like the one in the Court of the Lions and there were long, deep pools for ornamentation--now with goldfish--and for bathing. The pools were surrounded with hedges and palm trees. This place must have been a paradise on earth for the Moorish ruling class.

And, now Robert, Julia, and Paul had it to themselves. Robert wished that just he and Julia were sharing this magical night. Had they been alone, perhaps, on one of the benches in the Moorish baths with just the shafts of moonlight shining on them, they could have--and probably would have. . .

The sound of footsteps brought Robert out of his momentary fantasy and they saw the glow of a light coming from around the corner at the end of the passageway to the right. Someone, probably a security guard, was coming. "Let's get out of here," Robert motioned.

Now Robert hoped he could quickly find his way back to an area where they could casually stroll around a corner into a lighted area, blend in with some of the other people and drift on out of the Alhambra, having pulled off a spectacular romantic coup, a tale that with retelling would ripen into vintage nostalgia.

They felt their way along the tunnel-like corridors, sometimes in near darkness, sometimes in filtered moonlight. At one point, it was so dark that Robert reached for his lighter, but realized he no longer had it. He must have left it at the bath, when he put it down to cool.

"Damn it," he thought, "the only thing I can do is come back in the morning, get in line early, pay another admission, and see if I can get back to the baths to retrieve it before some one finds it." 

At last, feeling their way along the wall, they came to some steps that they hoped would lead them back to a place where they could blend in again in the legal zones of palace.

At the top of the stairs, Robert, stopped. "Stop! Freeze!," he whispered in the direction of Julia and Paul. "Don't make a sound."

They listened, but heard no footsteps and saw no light. Perhaps the guard had just been checking the baths, saw no one and went back the way he had come.

Then they all heard something else. They remained still and heard it again. It was the sweet song of the nightingale on a night of the full moon in the Alhambra of Granada and they had a truly magical element to add to the tale of their night in the old Moorish fortress.

At the top of the stairs was a place that Robert knew. He silently removed the little wooden barrier and they passed back into the legal areas. Robert put his hands in his pockets and they strolled through a filigree doorway and into a lighted, arabesque-adorned hall. 

A guard appeared and motioned for them to hurry, it was closing time. He ushered them along towards an exit to the public grounds outside. As they rounded the corner of Palacio de Carlos V, a big, square, blocky building that was as incongruous in this graceful place as a sumo wrestler dancing a Swan Lake ballet, a flashlight-toting guard came up behind them.

"Señores, perdonen," he said, "?Es de ustedes?" He asked, holding a Zippo lighter with Robert's initials on it.

"No," Robert said, "No fumo (I don't smoke)."

"Pues, nada," said the guard, and they walked away.

The guard flipped open the lighter, lit a cigarette, inhaled a puff from the black Spanish Ducado cigarette and grinning watched Robert, Julia and Paul disappear into the night.

- The End -

Gerry Dawes©2011 

About the author

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine. 

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