Living within the walls of history

It was late on Friday night when we arrived at our apartment in the medieval Tuscan town of Lucca after a full day of travel. My son asked: “How come every place we visit, there’s a big wall around it? We live inside the walls of the Albaicin in Granada and every city we’ve stayed in has walls.” He proceeded to list them: “Tallin (Estonia), Cadiz (Spain), Jerusalem (Israel), Lucca (Italy), Marrakech (Morocco).”

How fantastic to travel with children whose view of the world allows one to see through a different prism; a long forgotten world dissolved by the responsibilities of adulthood.

I hadn’t noticed until that moment that all these places where we had been living and visiting bore their histories in the edifices and buildings huddled together within thick, ancient walls. The walls are a reminder of former barbaric times when marauding invaders engaged in power struggles that made and broke empires.

The wall surrounding the Albaicin, Granada. This is the ancient Arabic quarter
Outside the walls of Tallinn, Estonia
The stunning city walls of Tallinn, Estonia
The stunning city walls of Tallinn, Estonia
The Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s old City wall
Riding on Lucca’s city walls (Ramparts)
The outside walls of the Medina, Marrakesh
Lucca huddles within its walls
Lucca huddles within its walls

While the threat of invaders has long passed, these ancient walls continue to influence the way life is lived within them, a lifestyle that is strikingly different from the one I know in the sprawling modern city of Sydney, full of wide open spaces and….horrendous traffic.

Sprawling Sydney 60km long and 60 km wide
Sprawling Sydney 60km long and 60 km wide

The first difference is the use of space. There is little open space within walled cities and houses are crowded together around small squares (plazas). That means that much of life is lived in the intimate spaces of the streets, squares, bars and cafes where people gather. The distances between places are short therefore people walk which means a lot of incidental human contact.

Here in the Albaicin neighbourhood of Granada I constantly bump into my neighbours while going about my day. I often have to factor in more time to get anywhere because of the many conversations that take place along the way. I love this interactivity and vibrancy. People are out and about every day and often in the evenings. In summer it doesn’t get dark until 10.30pm so why not stay out to enjoy the evening. The only element from my Australian life that I do miss is the open spaces, parks, grass and beaches i.e. gathering with people in nature.

Our house and narrow street huddled within the walls of the Albaicin with the Alhambra in the background
One of the squares near our house where the children sold lemonade to tourists
One of the squares near our house where the children sold lemonade to tourists
Looking down upon the Albaicin from outside the walls
Plaza Larga, fruit and veg market by morning and eating and drinking terrace by afternoon
Mirador de San Nicolas. While awaiting the school pickup at 3:30pm, many parents have beer on the terrace outside the school
This is how we watch soccer matches in Granada
A spontaneous gathering of musicians and locals in the square near our house

In Australia, the vast sprawling cities provide large private spaces and gardens for their inhabitants but also mean that most people move around in cars rather than walk. There is far less incidental contact with neighbours and community and often people spend their time in their homes rather than out on the streets or in cafes. The one place where I do experience that convivial community feeling is in the numerous parks and beaches of my neighbourhood in Sydney. In Granada my community centres around urban spaces, while in Sydney it is in nature, particularly on the grassy knoll of North Bondi Beach. North Bondi is a place where we picnic after work in Summer, swim in the ocean and usually bump into our friends and community.

The grassy knoll of North Bondi Beach for post work dinner picnics in Summer
Quintessential Sydney, my daughter eating a Golden Gaytime at Shark Beach/Nielsen Park
PIcnic blankets, grass and friends
PIcnic blankets, grass and friends
My beach!
My neighbourhood beach!

My second observation is, in Europe people spend time maintaining their history through festivals, food, religious ceremonies, culture and education. It is wonderful to see the knowledge of forebears passed onto subsequent generations. There is a certain pleasure and obligation to remember where people came from by maintaining old practices.

In Spain, I appreciate the way people uphold their history, culture and family heritage because of a sense of duty and appreciation. I particularly like seeing young people fully engaged in this process, thinking about and participating in activities that serve others rather than only themselves. However innovation and creativity can be stifled by the attitude that the ancestors knew everything and therefore their way of doing things must be maintained as it has for generations.

Festivals every other weekend to celebrate a rich history - Las Fallas
Festivals every other weekend to celebrate a rich history – Las Fallas
Semana Santa (Easter Processions), Granada
Semana Santa (Easter Processions), Granada

In Australia, when the British colonised the land of the Aboriginal people and imported migrants (mostly white initially and later on from everywhere) to build a new nation, the view was squarely fixed towards the future. This attitude remains to this day. Migrants from across the world flock to Australia to start over and build a new life. Some want to forget the past while others choose to maintain their heritage privately or in minority community groups. Australian society is a fruit salad of mixed ethnicity and culture with the predominant view towards building future prospects.

Australians seem to be very interested in moving forward and can be quite taken with the latest fads. While I find this leads to innovation and creativity, it can also feed empty consumption, superficiality and a culture of selfishness.

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to experience a different way of living for a year in Spain. Neither way of living is better or worse just different and wonderful in its own way. I do wish though that I could cross-pollinate a little of each experience to the other place. I would love to create some green open spaces in my neighbourhood in Granada and to bring some of the street and café life to my suburb in Sydney. Equally I would love to bring some deep sense of history and duty to Australia and some freedom to break from the past to Spain.

4 thoughts on “Living within the walls of history

  1. I have enjoyed reading your experiences during your year in Spain, enjoy the rest of your stay

  2. Love this blog again it’s super in observations , Luca’s comments etc Funny And the photos stunning Love Mum

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. My brother suggested I may like this website.
    He was once entirely right. This post truly made my day. You can not imagine simply how so much time I had spent for this info!

    Thank you!

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