A cyclone of grace and fury arose within the confined space where we sat wide-eyed and helpless. Louder and louder; the sharp thunder of feet, fierce swirling fabric, wailing vocals, and Spanish guitar pushed to the very precipice of its capabilities. Rendered immobile by the exquisite cacophony, I could only clutch my glass of sangria in one hand, camera in the other, and bear witness.
“Wow…” the one inadequate word I could muster, a whisper to myself, as the ecstatic squall crescendoed and then ended, met by an almost equally intense applause.
THIS. Was Flamenco.
It had taken me some time to finally hunt it down. I’d been attempting to find ‘real’ Flamenco for weeks while journeying through three of southern Spain’s most beautiful small cities, which I came to think of as the Traveler’s Trifecta: Seville, Cordoba and Granada.
Flamenco Strikeout #1: Seville
I arrived in Seville (pronounced Seh-vee-yah), the capitol of Spain’s Andalusia region from the Island of Majorca in the northeastern Catalonia region, feeling exhausted and sleep-deprived. I’d been in the country for less than two weeks, but already the Spanish lifestyle of LATE everything—late lunch, late-late dinner, and late-late-late evening entertainment and drinking—along with constant city trekking and sightseeing, was wearing on me. Even the mid-afternoon siestas (which I thoroughly relished) could not assuage the persistent sense of jet lag.
So I decided to try establishing a routine in each new place, taking it slow and not trying to do too much during each day. In the back of my mind, I was also waiting for the shadow of loneliness I’d felt during my first few days in Barcelona to creep back in.
To my relief, it kept its distance, allowing me to happily—and slowly—explore this lovely and colorful Medieval city.
I stayed at a cute, quiet pension at the end of a very narrow ally which sprouted from a very narrow street. I learned quickly that flattening oneself against buildings once every few minutes was necessary to just barely avoid being clipped by cars navigating the slim cobbled roadways, which were lined with barely-there sidewalks.
The pension’s best feature was an open air patio that extended from the first floor clear up through the third floor (my room opened to it) culminating at the rooftop terrace. My first day was marked by (but not dampened by) the most soothing thunderstorm, which caused the patio to echo softly with plummeting raindrops.
I found out later that patios, these pretty interior courtyards first brought into vogue by the Moors, are common sights in the south, offering cooling ventilation to combat the hot weather and harsh sun. They were everywhere—most hotels and residences boasted the eye-catching necessities.
By the next afternoon, the rain had given way to warm, flawless blue skies with brush-stroke clouds, and I headed out for a free walking tour of the city. The weekend crowds had thinned and it turned out to be just me on the tour—but my guide, Emilio, made it a fun and enlightening trek for one.
A high school history teacher, Emilio was also armed with a native’s knowledge of Seville’s past, and a passion for recounting its stories. He led me through a succession of plazas and structures rich with history and intrigue from a millennia of conquerers, changing religions, architectural fads, art and music. I even got an exclusive peek inside a hotel that once was the home of a wealthy family during Roman rule.
After the walking tour, Emilio gave me insider info on a spot where I could go to see some good (and free!) flamenco dancing. It didn’t start until much later, of course.
I bided my time by touring other noteworthy city sites, and lingering over a dinner of squid ink pasta and wine, until it was time to head to the flamenco show.
I entered the dimly lit bar with high hopes, but to my dismay, found it to be crowded and overflowing with college students (undoubtedly drawn by the “free” factor).
After a while, a poetry reading began. It was in Spanish, so the artistry of the words was pretty well lost on me. I silently pleaded with the poet to read faster, to outpace my dwindling energy levels and patience for the cramped surroundings.
In the end, I simply couldn’t do it—I was done.
There would be no flamenco that night.
I plodded slowly back to the pension through slender, winding cobblestones alleys glinting with silvery silhouettes under the moonlight.
Flamenco Strikeout #2: Cordoba
The train to Cordoba was nearly empty and I luxuriated in the painless transportation, dozing on and off as lush hills and olive trees whizzed by.
The relaxation was short-lived. I learned upon arrival at the “Funky Cordoba Hostel” that I had somehow booked my stay for two weeks later—and they were full up through this insanely busy weekend. Apparently, smallish Cordoba is THE place to be for flashy 20-somethings on warm spring weekends like this. The front desk guy bid me a grave, uncertain “good luck” and kindly stored my bag as I trudged off through the hot, tourist-crammed streets to locate new lodgings.
The fifth time proved to be the charm.
I found an open spot in a 6-bed mixed hostel dorm room for that night, and only that night (I decided to worry about the following night later). I fetched my gargantuan backpack—which was becoming lighter by the day as various items I deemed not worth the weight sailed swiftly into hostel trash cans—and moved into the dorm room.
At last, I headed out to explore the neighborhood, which was chock full of charming cafes and alleys. Windowsills and verandas spilled fragrant florals at every turn—Cordoba is known for its cheerful flowerpots, vibrant art, and grand monuments.
The evening light was warming to a faint gold by the time I returned to the mostly vacated hostel.
I’d started to realize that during my stay in Seville, I’d spoken to not a soul aside from my tour guide Emilio, and a couple of choppy, half English, half broken Spanish exchanges with the proprietor of the pension. I was hungry for real conversation in English instead of in my laughably limited Espanol. Plus, I grudgingly decided it was about time I start attempting to push at the walls of my wallflowerness.
I launched an ice breaker at the first person I saw—a question about the functionality of the dorm AC unit, which I only mildly cared about the answer to. The recipient/victim was a kind-looking Indian guy about my age who was currently exiting the dorm bathroom. To my relief, he answered in perfect, unaccented American English that he knew absolutely nothing about the AC unit.
Feeling on a roll, I went for the Where you from? question.
New York City.
Cool. How long have you been traveling?
About seven months.
My jaw dropped. Seven months?!
It turned out that Mehran, as he introduced himself, was of a similar mindset as myself, and on a similar year-long (at least) journey. I immediately had a thousand questions for this guy, who, essentially, was me seven months from now—and I was he from seven months ago.
Mind. Blown. I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Back to the Future, a windstorm-whipped Doc Brown yelling to Marty McFly, “I have to tell you about your future!!”
On mutual agreement, we set off for a nearby plaza cafe to sip some Rioja, a delicious Spanish red wine, while I grilled him about life on the road. It turns out that many of the doubts that had plagued me; worry that I had made a terrible mistake, uncertainty that I’d make friends, etc. had also occurred to him. Mehran assured me that it was normal, and all of the other long-term travelers he’d met (again—mind blown) had gone through the same. We even commiserated about our cumbersome, over-packed bags, sharing tales of tossing out favorite shirts, shoes, and anything else that would lighten the load.
It was 11pm when we returned to the hostel dorm, which yet again was an utter ghost town of empty bunkbeds and haphazardly strewn luggage.
Mehran looked at me and shrugged, “Want to go to a bar?”
The next four hours were awash with fantastic beer brewed right there in Cordoba by boisterous Spaniards and their German buddies, who, looking us square in the eyes with a slight twinkle in theirs—would not take “San Miguel beer” for an order. Instead, they plied us with their own excellently crafted ales and stouts, which were definitely the best I’d had so far in Spain.
Brews in hand, we managed to somehow (ok, honestly, it was all Mehran) wedge ourselves among the patrons clustered around the overturned wine barrel tables on the sidewalk outside the bar, and enjoy some good conversations in a wide assortment of global accents.
I felt my shell, my shield, begin to thin and dissipate into the lively nighttime streets of Cordoba.
THIS time when my newfound pal and I returned to the hostel, it was after 3am, and all the bunks were filled but our own. As I slipped into a booze-infused sleep, I felt happy, and almost a little…triumphant.
During the next few days, I toured Cordoba with Mehran a bit—and now imbued with more confidence—also made some new friends on my own during another free city walking tour.
My final night in the small, pretty city was spent at a different hostel, this time a 4-bed all female dorm. I had decided that this was the night I’d finally see a Flamenco show. I was warned that it would be at a restaurant. It would be expensive. It would be touristy.
I didn’t care, I just wanted to see real Flamenco.
However, an impromptu dinner invitation from my fun, friendly dorm mates from France, Germany and South Africa respectively, tore at my will to head off solo to the pricey show.
I chose to miss out on Flamenco once more.
Flamenco WIN: Granada
I was smitten with the pint-sized city of Granada even before my bags hit the tiny bed in my sparse hostel single room. Laid-back, tree-lined plazas featuring gurgling fountains and tail-wagging dogs were all around, seeming to punctuate each and every cobblestoned street. Orange trees grew here and there like mandated splashes of Shangri-la.
Over the next several days, utilizing my now-trusted resource—a free city walking tour—I explored the historic ruins of Arabic baths…
The stunning Moorish-era private homes and gardens belonging to some of Granada’s residents…
And of course, I ventured through the city’s most famous landmark, the breathtaking Alhambra palace…
Then, on my third evening in beautiful little Granada…
I finally caught my elusive Flamenco.
It happened that Mehran was also in Granada on that day as part of the “Traveler’s Trifecta” route through southern Spain, and had previously seen only a measly 5-Euro version of a Flamenco show via his hostel, which he suspected (correctly) wasn’t all that it could be.
So off we both went, eager to follow the Flamenco.
The show was to take place in a cave—which would be rather odd if Granada weren’t known for its many hillside caves, once the living quarters of the area’s Gypsy population.
We took our seats. Eventually every chair was filled, and complimentary sangria dispersed.
Then the lights dimmed. Musicians—traditional singers and guitar players, passed through to the stage. The dancers followed suit…
And they let loose on us all with the most electrifying, rumbling, gut-wrenching, stomping, painful, gloriously resplendent dancing that I have ever seen.
Next stop: Madrid and then on to Portugal!