Head for the Hills

There is an old Spanish story, and by old, I don’t mean American 100-years old; I mean Spanish old, in that it is said to have happened in the 1200’s.

Amidst the Reconquista battles to take Spain from the Moors, a noble, devoted, and capable knight named Alvar Fañez was tasked with planning and leading the capture of the town of Úbeda, a key crossroads on the border of La Mancha and Granada.

Rather than plan and prepare for the attack the night before, however, Fañez spent the evening with a Moorish woman with whom he fell in love. When he showed up the next day after the battle, he was asked where he had been, only to reply, evasively, that he had been “walking the hills of Úbeda.”

Since that legendary moment, to go “walking the hills of Úbeda” means for Spaniards to be wandering off task, or be roundabout, in one’s thoughts, focus, or speaking.

Given that such a way of operating is my natural state, combined with my love of colloquial phrases (I once carried a bag of charcoal to Newcastle upon Tyne in England because the phrase “like carrying coals to Newcastle” means it is a silly and wholly unnecessary thing to do), Jiab and I went for an overnight stay in Úbeda. There, we wandered about the town and, yes, the hills.

The entire city of Úbeda is a UNESCO world heritage site due to a good/bad circumstance. It was an extremely rich textile center in the 16th century, favored by the Kings of Castile.  It not only grew to have a population to rival Madrid’s, but the powerful families controlling the city used their wealth to bring the Renaissance there in art, buildings, and overall design. It reminds one of Florence in many ways as one walks about family palaces and squares.

Unfortunately for Úbeda, the bottom fell out in the 17th century and the town was left bankrupt. This had the fortunate effect, however, of stopping any continued development or “improvements,” such as replacing the Renaissance buildings. By the time the city got firmly back on its feet at the end of the 19th century, the value of the beautiful Renaissance architecture was appreciated and the city has remained well-preserved.

So, based singularly on that phrase, we took a chance and wandered, and were thoroughly rewarded for our own walking the hills of the area.

And like many wanderings, we serendipitously found even more.

A friend who grew up in the area had mentioned in passing that we ought to look for the “lost synagogue” there, and sure enough, we found a tiny sign for the Sinagoga del Agua, or Synagogue of Water. Again we set out to wander, only this time underground.

It seems that an old building was being remodeled less than twenty years ago, to make room for a hair salon, when the workers noticed an odd interior wall. When they inspected, they discovered a huge underground, long buried complex. The compound had once been the synagogue, storerooms, kitchens, Rabbi’s home, and overall epicenter of Úbeda’s Jewish community during the Middle Ages while still controlled by the Moors. After the Reconquista, the Jewish community was driven out, the complex buried, and all forgotten.

Now, the area was like a treasure trove time-capsule of the Jewish “Golden Age” in Spain with artifacts going as far back as the fifth century. The discoverers named the complex the Sinagoga del Agua because the wells that supplied water for cooking, living, even the mikvah (ritual bath) were still functional.

When we entered the place, truth be told, I did so out of historical curiosity, and the “coolness” of exploring underground. I jokingly asked the woman at the front if I could get a discount, being descended (slightly) from Sephardic Jews, to which she said “only if I can get a discount at the Cathedral.” Fair point.

There were only four people on the tour, and it was done by a rote-reciting guide in very rapid Spanish, so I pretty much wandered about, taking in for myself the artifacts on display.  I noted how much of the “ancient” paraphernalia, from menorahs to yads (pointers for reading Torah) to even children’s gregors (noisemakers for Purim), were displayed almost like mysterious artifacts from an ancient culture little understood, even if all those things are still used today.

Given the newness of the museum (it opened in 2010), and the lack of Jews in Spain, I wondered how many of us had been here in this space in the last 800 years. Could I be the first one, I even mused? More, why, for the first time in years, had I thought of “Jewish” and “us” together?

We came to what had been the altar (bema). The guide said something briefly, rapidly, and robotically and then walked the others to something else. I stayed and looked. This had been the religious focal point of an entire, lost community. An old Torah scroll was displayed in glass in front of me, partially charred from an unknown desecration. As I took it in, I let my mind wander freely about it all.

And then I said a Kaddish. It’s a Jewish prayer, said throughout a service, from generally praising God to, as I was sort of mindful here, saying in remembrance and mourning for the dead. I don’t know where it came from, either the impulse or my remembrance of the words in Hebrew, but it felt like I was letting go and it just came in. I even added the Sh’ma, or what one might call the ultimate Jewish affirmation of God, for good measure. I then wiped a couple of tears I surprisingly found around my eyes and rejoined the rest to see the kitchens and storage cellars.

Please make no mistake. I did not have a religious conversion in that moment. I’m still a cynic of theology (God, whatever He/She/It is or isn’t, can do whatever It wants to me when I die, but first I’ve got a LOT of questions and there’s some explaining to do about what It allowed to happen in history). I also remain an outright critic of organized religion (advocating for the Good does not mean everything you do is “good”). I walked away with no great epiphany or insight into the human condition.

But it was a fantastic experience. It was a freedom of mind and heart to go into something without expectation, to not force the experience to be anything pre-expected or bent to go in the “right” direction.

It was the opposite of my pre-retirement work life, when I had to set goals, make daily plans, and make sure everything was done by the due date.

It was akin to, say, a knight who spends all his life dutifully discharging his function and thinking that all who don’t maintain that same duty, dedication, or even faith are his enemies. That is, until he unexpectedly  meets someone so wonderful that he abandons his plans, his “supposed to’s,” and chooses instead to be fully in that space and moment. He then spends the night enjoying spontaneous love with “the enemy” rather than planning their demise.

That’s what can happen when you wander hills.

1 thought on “Head for the Hills”

  1. Thanks for sharing this most profound moment.
    As we say,” you’d have had to’ve been there”, but you’ve recounted something most will never see or experience for themselves.
    Perhaps it wasn’t a religious encounter, but more a spiritual one?


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