When I was a kid in 1980s Caracas, my friend Ahmad and I had this game.
We’d sit outside his dad’s leather shop and collect words that sounded similar in Arabic and Spanish.
“Al-sukkar – azúcar (sugar), Tassah – Taza (cup), Naranj – Naranja (orange),” and so on.
We never wondered why. Etymology wasn’t a huge interest of a pair of 12 years olds who quickly forgot all about the word games as soon as our moms allowed us to hit the Intellivision.
Fast forward 30 years and my first trip to the South of Spain would provide all the answers.
We descended on Granada on Easter Week and hit the ground running by strolling about town, admiring the ubiquitous orange trees that line the city and popping in La Charcuteria to grab an emparedado de jamón.
I instantly fell in love with everything: the medieval neighborhood of the Albaicín, Sacromonte (Gypsy Quarter), Realejo (Jewish Quarter), the procession to Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the gorgeous Mirador de San Juan.
This explosion of colors, flavors, and sounds gave me an idea of how multicultural this part of the world is. But things really sank in the next day.
We had morning tickets to The Alhambra, the former royal residence and court of the Nasrid Kingdom, and then Ferdinand and Isabella. And it was here where I learned everything they didn’t teach me in school.
Long story short: The Moors occupied Iberia for around 700 years until the Christian Kingdoms re-conquered the peninsula and ushered in a period of expansion for the Spanish Empire inaugurated by Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of what is today Latin America.
That’s why those Spanish words sound similar to the Arabic ones. They derive from them. My history teacher had omitted the part of the movie before 1492.
But back to Alhambra.
One of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alhambra (the Red One), is also one of the most famous and best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture sprinkled with elements of the Spanish Renaissance.
And, like the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba and the Alcázar de Sevilla, which we would see later in the same tour, shows superpositions of architectural styles reflective of the struggle inside and outside its walls.
When someone asked one of the guides why wouldn’t they simply demolish the conquered palace and build the corresponding one for the victorious religion instead, the answer was that immortalizing the humiliation was the point.
That’s how you end up with a Renaissance-style castle in the middle of an Islamic palace.
You should spend an entire day at Alhambra admiring Generalife (the court’s summer palace), Nasrid Palaces, Patio de Los Arrayanes, Patio de Los Leones, and Mirador de San Nicolas.
Granada had blown my mind, and that was just the beginning.
We drove 129 miles from Granada to Córdoba and arrived in the Roman-settlement-turned-Caliphate-turned-Christian Crown on a pristine spring night.
The following day, we immediately knew why the producers of “Game of Thrones” had chosen it as one of their locations.
Initially built in the early 1st century BC, the Roman bridge of Córdoba right in the middle of the city’s historic center welcomed us and led us to the famous Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba via the Reinassance gate Puerta del Puente.
Since our tickets to the Mosque-Cathedral weren’t until the next day, we briefly admired it from the outside before heading northeast to the Judería de Córdoba (Jewish Quarter).
Here, where Jews lived from the 10th to the 15th centuries, the intricate medieval layout from when it was separated from the rest of the city by a wall remained almost intact.
The Sinagoga (Synagogue) exhibited traces of the exact superimposition of cultural and religious symbols we first encountered in Granada. That was going to become more prevalent as we explored further.
Next to the Jewish Quarter, we found the “Patios Cordobeces” (Córdoba Courtyards), a quaint district with a world-famous tradition.
Although the patios are on display all year round, the locals compete by opening up their courtyards and showing off beautiful pots with flower arrangements that hang from the walls or rest on the cobbled pavement every May.
In 2012, these patios became Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as they’re a vital part of the identity and pride of cordobeces.
As the tradition has gained popularity through the decades, the exhibitions have included antique furniture, vintage kitchen utensils and other decorative arts.
It’s not hard to believe that the “Patios Cordobeces” are among, if not the most beautiful in all of Spain.
They are also a unifying aspect of Spanish culture and a welcoming environment for locals and visitors of all backgrounds in a region whose history has shown profound divisions.
Protect the patios at all costs.
There were not many fancy restaurants on this trip. Not to say we didn’t enjoy world-class food.
On every corner, charcuteries and tapas establishments had the best delicatessen this part of the world could offer.
The best part: you could grab, go and keep enjoying what I’m sure is one of the places with more iconic UNESCO sites per square foot.
All leading up to the main attraction: the mosque inside the church. Or is it the other way around?