One thing you cannot escape noticing in the cities of Spain, is the dual atmosphere that is apparent in the architecture, landscape and historical monuments of the country. On one hand, you notice the European design of its buildings, which is a common sight in the Western World. Some of the buildings resemble parts of London, or even the heart of San Francisco in California.
The other part of the old city, were the restaurant Sobrino de Botin is located represents the cross-cultural nature of Spain, where you see historical traces of other civilisations, like the Greek and Islamic civilisations.
The IE Business School assigned a tour guide for us to go through the old city after witnessing the more modern part earlier. The ancient city comprises of some hilly areas, the old city council and restaurants. You can tell from the onset that tourism is important to this country. In fact, I noticed it right from the airport. On arrival, I was expecting serious scrutiny from the immigration officials. Interestingly, in all the countries I have visited so far, the fastest clearance by an immigration official that I have ever experienced was in Spain. I handed in my passport, the official looked at my visa, and without saying a word, stamped on it. In no more than a few minutes, I was on the way out to check for my luggage.
I was traveling together with a friend and colleague from our office. Unfortunately, his luggage did not arrive along with mine, even though we checked our bags in together in Jeddah. We were asked to report to the missing luggage office, which we did. They promised to trace the bags and let us know within the next 24 hours. We left our hotel address with them. The following day, after lectures, we returned to the hotel, and my friend asked at the reception whether any message had been left for him. He was asked to check his room; lo and behold his bags had been brought intact, and placed in his room! I told my friend that I had a similar experience back in 2004, precisely on the morning of September 10 at Manchester airport in the UK. On arrival, I noticed that one of my bags was not there. I had reported to the missing baggage office.
Two days later, a man knocked at the house I was staying. “Hello”, he said, “I would like to apologise for the delay in bringing your luggage. We noticed that the handle of the bag was broken, that is why we could not clear it at the airport. Here is a replacement for the broken one; I hope you will continue to use our airline.” That was it, and the man left. I was perplexed, remaining speechless as I gently took the two bags, wondering what happened to the sense of justice in our other countries. Apologies for the digression.
The tour guide took us to the old city of Madrid, where we visited several monumental places. Among them was the restaurant Sobrino de Botin, believed to have been operating continuously without changing location since 1725. The Guinness World Book of Record awarded a certificate to the restaurant, which is placed at the entrance. “Wow,” exclaimed one of our colleagues; this is Moroccan architecture, he said. Many of us turned to Khaled Idrisi, as he explained to us the similarities between the design, sitting arrangements, arts and other features that define this restaurant. It wasn’t surprising at all to hear this from Khaled, as most of the buildings in the area have an element of North African outlook – a testimony to the influence of the Andalus Empire, many of which have been preserved by the Spanish authorities.
Next place to visit was a local market called Alfonso Dube Y Diez. It was a typical market made from steel. Its current design was completed in 1915. The market gives you a feeling of ancient Spain. It was well designed, with butchers on one side busy selling meat, while smaller fish markets are located in other areas. You cannot lose sight of tourists also enjoying the taste of local dishes. I hope our local markets in Nigeria, like the old Kurmi Market in Kano will one day receive the attention, preservation and promotion that markets like Alfonso have received. In fact, in a period of economic recession, it is a source of income for the state.
Several landmarks in the older part of Madrid still signify the impact of Andalus in Modern Spain. Among these landmarks are the Hammams, originally from the Arabic word Hammam. Although in present times, Hammam is translated as toilet, in those days, the Hammam referred to a bath place; not bath in a literal sense, but a place of relaxation. Hammam Al-Andalus was one of the key areas of tourist attraction, and it has branches in several cities like Grenada, Cordoba and Malaga.
In order to “kill the lice on our eyes,” we visited one of the Hammams in the city centre. The entrance resembles what in Hausaland we call “Soro,” a waiting area or sitting room in traditional Hausa architecture. The designs so much resembles the traditional palaces in Hausa city-states that one might think he is in Kano, Kazaure or Daura. This is not at all surprising, considering the historical relationship between North Africa and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
There are small ponds similar to modern day swimming pools, albeit much smaller. The sense of tranquility and calmness in the Hammam creates a feeling of admiration for those civilisations that flourished. It makes one engulfed with nostalgia for the achievements of Andalus. I was curious to know the function of the Hammam in those days. Our tour guide in Hammam Al-Andalus told us that scholars in Andalus frequently used the Hammam, so when they are tired of reading, writing or other forms of studies, they use the ponds to bath, relax and continue with their intellectual activities. To be continued.
Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u is an ex-BBC journalist and public affairs commentator.