The Right Coast

June 12, 2005
Report from al-Andalus
By Maimon Schwarzschild

A week's travel in Andalucia, after an urgent Law and Philosophy conference in Granada: all just part of the academic routine, of course.

The "centro historico" of a Spanish town, like that of European towns and cities generally, is almost always glorious: elegant architecture, beautifully maintained. In Andalucia, formerly al-Andalus, the old forts and palaces, and even the churches, reflect the flowering of Moslem culture before the Christian consolidation (and the mass expulsions of Jews and Moslems) after 1492. But the lovely old neighbourhoods are almost as striking as the great monuments: now thoroughly gentrified, they are a treat to visit.

The historic central districts contrast sharply with the medium-rise apartment buildings that surround every town. They are boxy, post-Franco modern, slightly shoddy looking, and there are vast numbers of them. Anywhere in the world -- very much including the USA -- it is surely better to be upper middle class than lower middle class. But the contrast seems even sharper in Europe. And Europe's boxy-development dwellers have long been treated as peripheral politically as well as socially and architecturally. The "centres historiques" voted Oui in the French Euro-referendum. They lost to an angry backlash from the boxers.

In Spanish towns, the heart of the "centro historico" is often the pre-1492 "juderia" -- the Jewish ghetto, now a lovely residential setting for the favoured few. There are no Jews living there, but Spain seems proud that there once were. There are plaques and monuments, even statues to such as Maimonides, to remind the visitor of those who once lived nearby.

Perhaps in 500 years or so the "Judengasse" -- the Jews' street -- will be the most desirable and expensive part of every German town. Will the House at the Sign of the Black Shield (Schwarz-schild) be a tourist attraction in Frankfurt? More likely, I suppose, the house of our neighbours up the street, at the sign of the Red Shield (Roth-schild).