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Front Page Essay Images
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Orange trees and a marble pillar at the courtyard of the Cathedral of Mezquita.
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Orange and palm trees adorn the 93-Metre high bell tower Torre de Alminar at the Cathedral of Mezquita.
Anyone who visits Andalucía for the first time would be surprised by its oranges. Bigger than a baseball, the fruits arch the tree branches. Their brilliant colour shines under the warm Andalucía sun.
       No, I am not speaking about orchards. These oranges grow where people go: from modern cities to hillside villages, from broad avenues to narrow alleys, from public squares to private quarters, from museums' gardens to churches' courtyards, and from the front of grocery shops to the back of restaurants. Embedded in the lushly green leaves like ornaments, they adorn the towns and country of Andalucía, turning them into a large garden of Eden.

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Fallen oranges in one of the thousands of fountains on the streets of Córdoba.
I start my Andalucían journey at Córdoba's Cathedral of La Mezquita - The Mosque in Spanish language. Nothing serves a better reminder of Córdoba's Islamic history than does this seemingly paradoxical oxymoron. A thousand years ago, this grandest mosque of western Islam was erected on the site of a Christian church. Only after the Christian king Alfonso X re-conquered Córdoba from the Muslim hands in 13th century, the mosque was consecrated as a Catholic church. Impressed by the mosque's intricate architecture, the Córdobans chose not to dismantle the mosque. Instead, they built their cathedral built within the mosque's high wall.
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At the Patio de los Naranjos,, a toddler works diligently in helping the gardener to collect fallen oranges.
       Passing La Mezquita's ornate gate is the Patio de los Naranjos, Patio of the Oranges. Here, orange trees align in a perfect rectangular array. It's a rather typical arrangement in any large Andalucían courtyard. Fruits washed down by the rain the night before litter on the ground and by the fountains. Two toddlers, whose hands are barely enough to grasp an orange, are serioiusly collecting the fallen fruits one by one, putting them into the gardener's dolly. I too pick up an orange, and peel it open curiously. Alas! the brilliant colour and perfect shape of the orange are obviously a disguise of the bitterness and sourness.
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The Mezquita's arches of red-and-white stripes have served as an unofficial symbol of Andalucía.
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The dome of the Mezquita resembles more to a mosque than to a cathedral
       Very soon, the arrival of the bulk tourists and school children adds noise and agitates the pigeons in the courtyard. Inside Mezquita's dim main hall, which once held 52,000 prayers, sun light pierces through the tinted windows high above. Now, hundreds of cameras flash fiercely as every visitor is hunger to capture the horseshoe arches interconnecting the forest of over one thousand marble pillars. These arches were constructed with bricks and stones in alternate pattern, creating a unique pattern of red-and-white stripes, which eventually become the ultimate symbol of Andalucía.
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A tree trunk with oranges and lemon at the garden of Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos.
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Córdoba's midnight, when all creatures have fallen asleep, is only disturbed by the sound of the burbling fountains and occasional falling oranges.
       Córdoba remains one the most popular attraction in Spain and even in Europe. This is largely due to its glorious past and prominent role in human history. Ever since the prince of the Islamic Umayyads Dynasty fled to Córdoba from Damascus in the 8th century, the city started to flourish, and eventually reached its golden age in the 10th century as a centre of arts, science, technology and philosophy. Scholars, merchants and diplomats flocked in, cultivating ideas of religious theory, medicine, astronomy, irrigation and manufacturing techniques and so on. Some studies suggest that Córdoba, with 500,000 inhabitants at the time, had 80,000 shops, 1,600 mosques, 900 bath houses and 70 libraries, along with a system of lit streets, running water and underground sewage. It resembled every bit of, if not surpassed, a modern-day city.
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A skilled motorist squeezes through a narrow street in Córdoba.
       Yet, our ancient Córdoban city planners certainly had never expect the rise of automobiles. With today's wide spread use of motor vehicles, Córdoba's labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, albeit elegant, have become more or less a nuisance or nightmare to local residents and visitors alike.
       Arriving in Córdoba at dusk with my rental car, I endured the most stressful driving challenge in my life. I was lost in the maze worse than a disoriented mouse - making numerous wrong turns, getting the vehicle at an alley corner, and facing a street with seemingly not enough width for the car. I hesitated in front of a narrow street. The wheels of the car had been hugging both sides of the curb. But this appeared to be normal for drivers behind.
       "Go! you can make it", they seemed to yell.
       Indeed I did, with a little extra gas throttle. Córdoba's drivers are patient enough to wait in traffic as long as it takes, for veryone has his day falling into a driving predicament.
       No longer being able to withstand the driving ordeal, I abandoned the car by walking to the hotel just a couple of street blocks away. At the end, I was rescued by the friendly hotel owner Antoine, who manoeuvred the car through the alleys to reach the hotel garage with surgical precision.
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The Giralda Tower amid the grove of Orange in Sevilla. Like the Mezquita in Córdoba, the bell tower of the 15th century Cathedral of Sevilla was converted from the minaret of a mosque.
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An orange tree in the garden of the Casa de los Pilatos - a 16th century aristocratic mansion.
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Oranges left rotten at a park near the city centre of Sevilla.
       Since then, I was determined to leave the car in garage until moving on the next city. Every time I saw pedestrians backed up against the wall like a shadow to give way to motor vehicles, I wondered what it would be like a thousand years later in, say, New York City. Like Córdoba, our modern cities are not designed for any future vehicle we could not foresee. If our car size keeps growing continuously, I am afraid that New York's 5th Avenue would one day be stuck with one monster car.

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Modern sculptures in display at the Plaza Nueva at the centre of Sevilla. The city has been known in foster art exhibitions - classic or avant-garde.
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A small sector of the splendid Plaza de España. This massive crescent edifice was solely constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American exhibition. Tiled alcoves representing Spanish provinces and cities line at the foot of the building.
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Near the Cathedral of Sevilla, street lamps light the path for a pair of home-bound newly-wed.
Admittedly, not all Andalucían cities are so unfriendly to drivers like Córdoba (or Albaicín in Granada). Sevilla, for example, has transformed to a city with wider streets and avenues despite its age comparable to Córdoba's. Although this capital of Andalucía is better known to the world due to Rossini's opera, the 1929 Ibero-American expositions, EXPO 92 World Fair, as well as numerous cultural events it fosters, Sevilla boasts many world-renowned edifices of its own right, most notably the 15th-century Catedral de Santa María de la Sede (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See) and its lofty Giralda click to enlarge
A lazy afternoon at the Casa de los Pilatos
bell tower. The popular square outside this mosque-turned-Roman-Catholic-cathedral has become the natural centre of the city. Wedding sedans circle the square wildly under the orange trees before horning away with dusts.
       The Cathedral of Sevilla may be the largest of its kind in the world, it does not replace the status of another city landmark that Sevillanos are feverishly proud of. Turning north from the Cathedral, passing the Torre del Oro (the Gold Tower) along the tranquil Guadalquivir River, I reach Sevilla's most famous bullring Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza. The bullfighting season has not begun, only tourists pay to have a glimpse of the idle elliptical arena.
       I don't know starting from when bullfighting has become a cultural institution of the Iberia Peninsula. What I do know, however, is the importance of such cultural institution in today's Spanish social life. Bullrings, like shops, churches, are indispensable in every city and village - from Sevilla to Ronda, from Malaga click to enlarge
Sevilla's elliptical Plaza de toros de la Maestranza bullring.
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A portrait of heros in the museum of Plaza de toros de la Maestranza.
to Arcos de Frontera, despite such sanguinary entertainment, or perhaps ritual, contradicts every bit of the modern-day humanitarian principles - stabbing barbed sticks on the animals' backs, thrusting a sword to their hearts, cutting their spinal cords, and severing their heads and tails for trophies. It may appears to be a demonstration of bravery in the competition between human beings and nature, an essential virtue in an ancient society. Even that, such competition has been fair. In a small museum next to the bullring, a sole picture of a cow is displayed amid of all masculine objects. She gave birth to ferocious bulls that injured so many of our heros, she deserved to be terminated in order to guarantee the vicious genes would never carry on. Man has never been fair to his fellows human beings, let alone to animals. Man's best conscience is to put up a memorial portrait after unfairly terminating his competitor.

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One of the numerous patterns of holiday lamps during the carnival period in Cádiz.
Fortunately, the cultural institutions of Andalucía are more diversed and jolly than just bullfighting. I visit the region right before the Catholic Lent in February. From cities to towns, neons lights hang high over the streets and avenues - the redolence of fiesta is in the air. I accelerate my itinerary to the southwest seaport of Cádiz, where its world-renowned carnival is already underway.
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A rare group of chirigotas with women.
       The carnivals of Cádiz are not known for lavish costumes and parades, neither is it characterised by frantic street dances with abundant flesh. Instead, it's a cultural celebration that could challenge foreigners and even Spanish who live not in the region. Higher proficiency in Spanish language and regional colloquials, as well as in-depth understanding of the local customs and culture are always prerequisites for a full appreciation the very spirit of the festival.
       During the two-week fiesta, the entire Cádiz turns itself into a massive theatre, with its plazas, shop-front staircases being converted into improvised stages for performers and hundreds of thousands of spectators. I hop from place to place, click to enlarge
A group of chirigotas in animal costumes.
making my best effort to understand the performance of the choirs and chirigotas - the mostly male, witty and satiric singing groups who sing about politics, current events, anecdotes and daily affairs. Their modest costumes make them characters they sing about, which could be animals, police officers, chefs or priests... The enthusiastic audience are important part of the interactive shows. They seem to be stimulated by every word of the lyrics. They call for encore with very specific requests. And the chirigotas can always pull up another piece of satiric lyric fitting into the sung melody.
       February evening in Cádiz is still chilling. Yet the massive gathering with the festival God at the Plaza San Antonio, the flows of festival goers filling every street of Cádiz, the glaring theatre lights on the stages all heat up the atmosphere over the city like a hot summer day. I left the city with a taste of another Andalucían cultural heritage. The image of every street and plaza, every palace, every garden, every exquisite pueblo blanco (white village), the voices of the festival chirigotas and the laughters of the cheerful audience, as well as the taste of the Andalucían oranges, would remain forever as parts of my cultural experience.

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Celebrating Chinese New Year (Feb. 18, 2007) in Sevilla with a pair of Andalucían oranges.