Al-Andalus Express, a Cruise Ship on Wheels, Tours Andalusia
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Do not speak to me about the court of Baghdad and its glittering magnificence; do not praise the splendour of Persia and China – for there is no land on earth more magnificent or richer than Al-Andalus.”
So rhapsodized a 10th-century Arab poet living in medieval Arab Spain when describing his country, today’s modern Andalusia – once a land of affluence and learning. In the last decade, visitors to southern Spain have been, to some extent, able to relive these days of Moorish glory, traveling in comfort via the Al-Andalus Express – a luxury cruise ship on wheels. For most passengers, the splendor of Spain’s Arab/Muslim remains is an unexpected revelation.
Yet, this should not be so. A thousand years ago Arab Spain, or as it is more commonly known Moorish Spain, was a fabled land of fairy-tale palaces, unmatched learning and luxury living. For at least five centuries, it was the agricultural, cultural, scientific and literary heart of Europe. All this passed away when the conquering Christian armies overwhelmed the Arabs and pushed them out of the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, their legacy continues to impregnate all facets of Spanish life, especially in architecture – evident in almost all parts of the country.
The centuries have passed and the fears and hatreds of the Reconquista are long forgotten and Spain has taken over Moorish history as its own. A good number of the monuments from the days of Moorish glory are being renovated and preserved and these are drawing millions of tourists. The Alhambra in Granada draws more tourists than any other historic site in Spain and in Europe is second only to the Vatican in enticing visitors.
The best way to see these Moorish and other Andalusian historic sites is by taking the Al Andalus Express tour. A privileged vantage point from which to admire the countryside, then visit its historic cities, the train offers a unique opportunity to explore the region and enjoy its many delightful attributes.
Al Andalus, one of the most luxurious trains on earth, was the brain child of Julian Garcia Valverde. To promote Spanish tourism, he came up with the idea of taking forgotten old railway carriages and meticulously restoring them to their original character. These were then fitted with various innovations required by the demands of modern o a bygone age, transporting passengers through time to the European Belle Epoque.
The train consists of carriages carry exotic Arabic/Spanish names like Alhambra, Giralda, Gibralfaro and Madina Zahara. All the cars were built in the 1920s and renovated in 1985, before becoming part of the Al-Andalus Express.
Even though this luxury train was conceived as a replica of the well-known `Orient Express’, it is much different. Its principal feature is taking the passengers for tours of the cities and towns in which Al Andalus stops as well as to the top restaurants in these historic centers. The train is in service from April to June and September and October. During the remaining months, there are golf tours and the train can be chartered and the leasers can specify their own itinerary in any part of Spain or Portugal.
This truly exquisite train went into service in 1989, touring Andalusia, Spain’s largest province and one of the richest in historical terms – parts of it has been part of the Muslim world for some eight centuries. Besides the province’s enormous stretches of olive groves, picturesque sparkling-white villages, magnificent cathedrals, and countless Moorish remains, the region is the cradle of bullfighting, flamenco and tapas (Spanish appetizers). Hence, there is much to see and do. For almost all who travel on this fabulous train, it is an unforgettable experience, full of romantic memories of the train’s elegance and of the most interesting province in Spain.
We began our journey in Seville – the home of Al Andalus Express. As we relished our lunch in a luxurious atmosphere, the panorama of the countryside along the Guadalquiver, from the Arabic wadi al-Kabir (large river), rolled by in a kaleidoscope of appealing colours. Fields of grains, olive groves and orchards, dotted with whitewashed towns, covered the countryside – a land made rich after the Arabs introduced a superb irrigation system to Spain.
At the Cordoba Railway station, a bus was waiting to take the train’s 60 passengers for a tour of the old city which for 1,200 years was the capital of western Islam. Soon we were entering the Mezquita-Catedral: the crowning jewel of Cordoba – once a city of one million which today has dwindled down to 325,000. This former Great Mosque of Cordoba, still the fourth largest in the world, is a testimony to the medieval Arab genius in architecture. Its remaining 800 varied columns, impressive double Moorish arches of red brick and white limestone and a splendid mihrab are an indication of its once imposing magnificence.\
After the Mosque, our excellent guide, an encyclopedia of the city’s history, took us for a tour of the Judería. Every alleyway and street in this once Jewish ghetto established after the Christian conquest, was clean, neat and charming. The seemingly always newly whitewashed homes, flower-strewn courtyards, historic churches, many of which were former mosques, and a host of other Moorish monuments make the Judería one of the most delightful and interesting old towns in Europe.
“We’re going back to our ship,” one of the train passengers remarked as we walked back to our bus. “You mean our train!” Her friend looked puzzled. “Oh!” Anyway, I think of it as a cruise ship.” The lady grinned.
In the evening we again returned to the Judería to dine in El Churrasco Restaurant, a converted traditional Cordoban home full of atmosphere. We sampled tapas as we toured the home, then sat down to a fine Andalusian dinner. It was a delightful meal in this restaurant-museum in the city of the caliphs.
The train travelled by night and the next morning we were in Granada – the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. After breakfast in the luxury aura of the train, we were soon walking through the fabulous Alhambra Palace, the luxury abode of the Moorish kings. The last great handiwork of the Arabs in Spain, it is a fairytale palace defusing the genius of Spanish Islam. Along with its attached splendid Generalife Gardens, the summer playground of its Muslim Nasrid kings, it is truly an astounding example of Moorish handiwork.
After strolling through the Albaicín Quarter, the only remains of an inhabited Moorish city, located on the opposite hill across from Alhambra, we sat down at the Mirador de Morayma Restaurant for a delightful lunch of tapas. As we munched on course after course of these tasty Spanish appetizers we enjoyed a breath-taking view of the Alhambra, glimmering across the valley – one of the top spots in Granada to view this epitome of Moorish structures.
That evening as we relished our meal in the Alhambra Palace Hotel’s restaurant surrounded by Moorish arches and delicate filigree inscribed with flowing Arabic script, I remarked to my colleague, “It’s so beautiful here! I hate to leave this exquisite abode and return to our hotel.” “Hotel?” He looked at me inquisitively. I stuttered, “I mean! Our train!” I realized that I perpetuated the same error as my fellow passengers had made the day before.
The next morning as our hotel-train silently pulled out of the station, I felt sad to be leaving fabulous Granada behind. Its Moorish magic had ensnared not only me but many of my fellow passengers.
In a few minutes, we were moving through the fertile vega which in the Muslim centuries had made Granada one of the richest cities in the world. As Al Andalus traveled toward our morning goal, Finca La Bobadilla, the landscape became somewhat hilly, but still green with cultivated fields, dominated by endless olive groves – part of Spain’s sea of olive trees which make the country the largest producer of olives on the globe. In fact, 50% of the world’s olives are grown in Spain.
At the tiny Andalusian hamlet, Salinas Villanueva de Tapia, a bus was waiting to take us to Finca La Bobadilla – a sparkling-white fairytale country estate set in the midst of an ocean of greenery. Here, we spent pleasant hours, romping in its gigantic swimming pool, then dining on a gourmet meal before returning to our cruise ship on wheels.
Beyond Salinas, the olive orchards continued until we reached Antequera which in 1410 fell to the Christians after the first-time use of gunpowder in European warfare. Once a favorite spot of Granada’s nobility, it is a bustling agricultural center sitting on low hills in the Valley of Guadalhorce. We toured one of the town’s 36 ancient churches, the Nájera Museum and the 14th century Moorish Alcazba, whose towers dominate the town below. From the castle’s summit, we could plainly see Peña de los Enamorades (lover’s rock) where legend says a Christian girl and a Muslim lad threw themselves from its top when their liaison was forbidden.
The next day, after a few hour’s ride, we arrived in Ronda, the fourth most visited city in Andalusia. Our entrance to this town of 35,000 was far from spectacular. However, it would have been much different, if we had come by road from the seacoast town of Algeciras. From that direction, the mountain scenery would have been dramatic, and the first view of the city, perched like an eagle atop the Tajo – a chasm some 400 m (1312 ft) deep – would have been sensational.
We toured some of the town’s Moorish and Christian sites, then enjoyed an elegant lunch at the Parador Tourismo. The top hotel in town, it offered a fantastic view of the Tajo and the countryside below.
Late in the afternoon, our hotel-train was chug chugging its way northward toward Carmona – a town, near Seville, filled with Carthaginian, Roman and Moorish remains. After being entertained by `Coro Rociero’, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner at the historic Parador de Carmona, offering a breathtaking view of the town and fertile countryside.
The following day our cruise ship on wheels rested in its home base Carmona while we departed by bus for Jerez del la Frontera, the original home of Sherry wine. After driving some 84 km (52 mi) through rich farmland, much of it bright with yellow sunflower fields, we reached this once frontier city between Muslims and Christians in Spain, changing hands several times during the Reconquista.
Our first stop was at Domecq, one of the 40 bodegas (wine cellars), many of which were established, after the Reconquista, by British Catholic refugees, fleeing persecution in England. Family names of Jerez’s great Sherry firms go back to this period. Unlike most wineries which I have visited where one is given a taste of the wines, here, bottles were placed before us and we could partake of as much Sherry as we desired.
Leaving the cellars of Sherry behind, we were soon at the Royal Spanish Riding School, enjoying one of the most famous horse shows in the world, featuring horses, descendants of pure bred Arabians. This put us in the mood to enjoy our mouth-watering lunch at El Bosque Restaurant, one of the top eating places in Jerez.
Back in the train that evening, we feasted on a gala dinner in the Al Andalus Express’s Alhambra Restaurant car. After our five day tour, most of the passengers had developed a close camaraderie and we ate, joked, and then danced the night away. It was a fitting feast to crown our Andalusian journey.
The sixth and final day, in Seville, the capital of Andalusia and the home of the 1992 World’s Fair and colourfully staged annual April festivals, we felt elated. The city is full of character – much of it due to its impressive Moorish remains.
After breakfast on our luxurious hotel on wheels, we toured its historic Santa Cruz Quarter, Giralda and Alcázar. It was hard to bid our Al Andalus Express adieu in this city, world renowned and its flamenco evenings, the top in Spain – inherited, to a great extent, from the Moors. For six days, we had found in this train-hotel romantic recollections, refinements and excellent service – set in the aura of a bygone era which transported us through a time-tunnel to the elegance and glamour of the early 20th century.
Even more fulfilling as we chugged our way unhurriedly across the Andalusian countryside were our visits to the renowned Moorish cities of Cordoba, Granada, Ronda and Seville without constantly having to pack and unpack our bags.
No less delightful were the friendly and helpful staff and the gourmet meals on the train or in the Moorish aura of superb city restaurants. The tour was the epitome of luxury travel while, at the same time, enjoying the countryside, folklore, gastronomy, monuments and people of Andalusia – Spain’s Moorish wonderland.