A week spent on the Andalusian coast, looking south, meant that Morocco was never out of sight. So too it seemed further inland, where the whitewashed hilltop villages look much like they must have looked before the Moors were expelled from Spain half a millenium ago.
Based in Estepona, our best excursions were inland, to places like spectacular Ronda – a much-visited outcropping on the edge of a high plateau. Ronda, where you can visit La Casa Del Rey Moro, with its "secret water mine" of endless steps through a fortified staircase down to the town's water supply.
Our day trips took us over the Ruta de los Almorávides y Almohades, retracing the steps of those Muslim dynasties who ruled Spain for centuries, and whose legacy is still very much a part of what has been called "the Soul of Spain."
What is fascinating is this modern embrace of the Moorish past, once reviled to the point where St. Michael's foot on a devil-dragon looks very much like the head of a Moor. Blas Infante of Casares – called "the Father of Andalucia," and executed by Franco's Falangists during the Civil War – did much to turn this around. A plaque in his hometown quotes his honoring of "our brothers, the exiled Moriscos." Blas Infante, in his recognition of Spain's Muslim past, may have been ahead of his time, but then again, Franco too successfully recruited Moroccans to fight on his side in the Civil War.
Gaucín, Ronda, Casares, and Istán – like the Spanish language itself, where close to a third of all words have an Arabic origin – are redolent of this past which continues to influence modern Spain. Google "Andalusia and Maghreb" and you'll like come up with a bunch of results celebrating the musical and culinary crossover that centuries of common culture have created. But the ties go much beyond that.
In the past week in Tangier, as we were returning from Tarifa – where the Muslim conqueror Tariq ibn Ziad landed 1,300 years ago, lending his name to nearby Gibraltar – on our car ferry, the closing ceremonies were being held for a conference on that same Andalusian-Maghrebi historical link. Attended by academics and religious thinkers from Spain and Morocco to Scandinavia and Iraq, the Tangier conference was another reminder of the need to look at the Iberia and the Maghreb in a holistic fashion.
Much like the Spain-North Africa Project – SNAP – "a scholarly initiative to encourage the study of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghrib as a unified region" among American universities. In Spain, there is the Fundación Tres Culturas, which seeks to underscore the common ground among the three religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism – which shared historic Andalus.
We laud such efforts, and participate in our own way, hosting students from CIEE's Sevilla program, and welcoming Spanish and other researchers availing themselves of TALIM's rich library.
Europe is a continent away from Africa, but in these parts, Spain and Morocco are just the next mountain range across the water. Long gone are the days of the land bridge between the two continents, but they're culturally much closer than many would place them.
From Istán, you can see Gibraltar and Morocco beyond, clear weather or not.