November 23, 2011
February 8, 2010
October 24, 2009
July 25, 2009
Sometimes you don’t reach your destination, and it doesn’t matter, because you find some other place, a place you would never have found had you not been in motion, heading somewhere else. That is how we ended up in the Troglodyte Cave Museum of the Immaculate One in southern Spain.
When Jo proposed traveling to Europe in November all I could think of was Mediterranean Spain and Cordoba, and Granada, especially Granada. Ever since my teens, when I first saw the intricate art of Escher, I had regarded the Alhambra in Granada as the repeating pattern holy of holies, the most beautiful place on earth for those odd people who love the mesmerizing tile work that fills so many mosques and the palaces of Caliphs and sultans. I could go to Europe in November, if our direction was south and our destination was Alhambra — the Red Fortress– the last stand of Islam in Europe, conquered finally by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, that fateful year that also saw the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the European discovery of America.
But we couldn’t get there, at least not in the door of Alhambra. The web site was emphatic — no admission without tickets purchased through the web site and mailed to the purchaser. No standing in line to buy a ticket, don’t even think about it.
We didn’t learn this, of course, until we were already underway, in Spain, without a fixed address, and since the tile work in the palaces of Cordoba was none too shabby and easily seen, we decided to settle for a drive-by of Granada and a stay in the small town of Purullena, in cave country. It was close to Granada, close enough for a day-trip and the caves sounded interesting — and the cave dwellers. The tour book had said that tens of thousands of people still live in caves in this region and that they had been continuously occupied and expanded since the first North African invaders arrived and dug themselves in, bringing Islam and intricate repeating patterns in the 8th century CE. Modern day Spanish folk living in holes in the ground, it had to be worth a look.
We arrived in late afternoon and stumbled right away onto a night club. It was closed so we couldn’t see inside, but there it was, big double doors opening directly into a hillside, with a parking lot and a dumpster outside. Way up above, at the top of the conical hill you could see chimneys and TV antennae sticking out at odd angles. About half the homes in town were caves and the chimneys and antennae crested virtually every hill and mound. There were empty caves with For Rent and For Sale signs out front, cave real estate offices and tradesmen in trucks with signs advertising their particular cave digging and maintenance expertise. There were ramshackle caves with broken windows (yes they all had windows and they were rectangular, not round) and caves for the upper class, with two car garages dug in with brickmasons out front reapplying stucco and widening entrances.
The hills were made of clay, hard enough to withstand erosion, just soft enough to yield to the sharp scraping tools of the people who dug them. It was how people lived there. The restaurant where we ate most of our meals was half structure and half cave. The one big tourist attraction was the Troglodyte Cave Museum of the Immaculate One, in the center of town. I had never seen those particular words in one title before so it was hard not to be curious. It was a single giant cave with about seven different levels. The lowest was the home of the owners. You walk through their kitchen and living room, through arched openings into bedrooms and then proceed up whitewashed stairways with heavy ropes for railings. As you go up and in you find bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms of increasingly older and more primitive decor and furniture. At the highest level, just within the peak of the hill, is the museum itself, filled to the gills with antique digging and scraping tools, photographs of troglodytes (literally, cave-dwellers) digging, paintings of Mary, and one picture of a huge hog being bled to death. There were windows on this level, a doorway, and a place to stand outside. From this vantage point you could look out onto the town, a forest of peaked hills, the only repeating patterns in sight were the tilted chimneys and bristling antennae and the tooth-like marks in the painted clay walls in the cave rooms behind us.
To be continued in my next column, I which I will “do” immaculate, a truly wondrous word, rooted in dung tossing, and troglodyte, not always a pejorative, and worth digging into.
In the meantime visit http://www.cuevainmaculada.com for more info and pictures of the caves and museum.