Category Archives: Spain

Cordoba and Once Upon a Time

pretty door - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOur arrival in Córdoba didn’t go exactly as planned and reminded us, once again, that the travel gods have a sense of humor even if we don’t.  We’d arranged a swankier than usual room at a small boutique hotel through hotels.com since one of our nights in the city would be free with their loyalty program and, following the hotel’s instructions, arrived mid-afternoon to check in.  Since the hotel was in the historic part of the city, a maze of winding streets with many only wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians, the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed the way down a cobbled path.  We found the correct address along a whitewashed wall of connected two-story residences, took hold of the heavy brass knocker, and rapped, a loud and hollow sound that seemed to echo down the narrow lane.  We waited a bit and tried again (and again) with similar results.  Finally giving up, thoroughly out-of-sorts, grumbling and dragging our overnighters behind us, we managed to plaster smiles on our faces as we asked for directions and followed the pointing fingers of a few helpful people until we found a street busy enough to hail a taxi.  Fortunately, we had the name of a place to give to our driver, Hostal La Fuentes, where a friend of ours was staying.  Now that the travel gods had had their fun, they decided to smile on us and we were happy to find a clean and comfortable room for three nights at half the price. A call by Skype to hotels.com resulted in the cancellation of our reservation and a refund of both our money and the free night to use in the future.  Travel is a good way to remember that, contrary to our illusions and the plans we make, we really don’t have control over much!

street scene - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoWith the detail of where to stay for the next three nights resolved, we turned our attention to making the most out of our visit to the historic area of Córdoba. Its history stretches back over two-thousand years and includes a population who practiced three major religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, you can bet that the city has many fascinating stories to tell.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was a Roman city.  Founded around 152 BCE alongside the Guadalquivir River, the Romans constructed a wall around the city and built a bridge.  Known as El Puente Romano, the Roman bridge still spans the river and has been restored and renovated numerous times. The Romans shipped Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Rome and the city was the capital of the Roman Province of Hispania Ulterior (the southwest corner of modern Spain) which translates rather poetically into Further or Thither Spain.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was ruled by the Visigoths. After Nero fiddled and the western Roman Empire collapsed, and despite invasions by several tribes of Germanic origin, Córdoba continued to flourish.  The Visigoths brought Catholicism with them when they conquered the city in 572 CE and built a couple of churches over their relatively short rule of 150 years.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was a major Islamic center. The Moors invaded and conquered the city in 711 and occupied it for the next 525 years.  In its heyday, the city became the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, governing almost all of the Iberian Peninsula.  As one of the largest cities in the world with a population estimated around 450,000, as well as one of the wealthiest in Europe, Córdoba was a haven with a reputation for progressive thought.  Here, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted, more or less amicably, in a spirit of religious tolerance.  During this time, the city became a center of Moorish philosophy, architecture, mathematics, arts and poetry. And thriving alongside the Muslims, the Jewish community also became an important seat for Jewish scholarship, medicine, learning and culture. Perhaps most notably for us travelers, this was the era of some of the Moor’s greatest architectural glories.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos or Royal Palace is an enormous complex with multiple towers and a fortress begun in 785.  It has a complicated history beginning as the home for Caliphs (leaders of the Muslim community), Spanish Kings and Queens, the Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, a garrison and military prison as well as a civil prison.  Now a national monument, it’s not hard to imagine the history that played out within its maze of mostly empty rooms, halls and towers. Outside, are the patio and magnificent gardens laid out in three terraces with ponds and fountains, boxwood hedges, cyprus and citrus trees and flowers, few of which were in bloom since it was winter.

gardens - Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

Alcazar de Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoConstruction on The Great Mosque of Córdoba (now called the Mosque-Cathedral) began in 784 and continued over two centuries.  Without a doubt, the most stunning religious monument we’ve ever seen; we devoted our last post to this magnificent building that you can find here.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoA reconstruction of the Albolafia Water Mill (1136) is next to the Roman Bridge on the northern bank of the River Guadalquivir.  Water was drawn up by a chain pump and carried through a series of aqueducts to the Alcázar Palace Gardens.  Legend has it that Queen Isabella ordered the water wheel dismantled since its noise disturbed her.

Albolafia Mill - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Caliphal Baths, also known as the Arab Baths, were built in the mid-tenth century and are adjacent to the Alcazar.  The pools reproduced the Roman series of cold, warm and hot water baths and were an important part of social life as well as the ablutions and ritual cleansing mandatory before prayer in the Islamic religion.

The Calahorra Tower - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Tower of La Calahorra, the oldest defense building in the city, is located on the far side of the Roman Bridge. Built towards the end of the twelfth century as an arched gate between two square towers, a third cylindrical tower was added a couple of centuries later and connected the original towers for additional fortification.  Past use has included a prison as well as a school for girls (an eyebrow-raising perspective on a previous educational system) and currently it houses a museum with interesting exhibits of Cordoban life and history.  A climb up to the roof is worth the effort as there are spectacular, panoramic views of the Roman Bridge, the city and the Mosque-Cathedral.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was the home of the Catholic Monarchs: Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  After centuries of warfare between the Christian Kingdoms and the Moors known as the Reconquista, Córdoba was conquered by the Christians in 1236. The splendor of the era and progressive thought under Islamic rule vanished with the expulsion of the Moors.  Over the next two centuries, the economy weakened and a series of epidemics including the Black Death (aka the Plague) in the spring and summer of 1349 led to a decline in the population from Córdoba’s heyday of 450,000 to 25,000.  Ferdinand and Isabella used the Alcázar as one of their primary residences while they set about ridding Spain of the last of the Moors in Granada (1481-92).  Any Muslims allowed to remain in the city were forced to convert to Christianity and were known as “Moriscos” although they fared better than the Jewish community who were labeled “a scandal against Christianity.” During this time, Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity and become “Conversos” or flee, culminating with the final order leading to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1483.   Here is where Ferdinand and Isabella met with Christopher Columbus to discuss the little detail of financing his expedition to the “New World.”

Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella - photo by No Particular Place to GoAnd here is where they launched the Spanish Inquisition, lasting over three centuries, that strengthened the Church and enriched its treasuries. The Royal Palace was converted into a tribunal with interrogation and torture chambers and many of its first victims were the Moriscos and Conversos.

Note:  We don’t usually say to flat out avoid a museum but that’s what we recommend regarding the Gallery of the Inquisition.  This horrifying museum is located in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter (the Judería) and has several rooms filled with various implements and devices used in the Inquisition that are designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain, cruelty and humiliation upon its victims. Many methods of torture made burning at the stake a favorable alternative.

Once upon a time, and over the next few centuries, Córdoba became something of a cultural backwater. Although Spain was at the peak of its power, Córdoba retreated into the background and many of its buildings fell into decay with little business or commerce to entice new residents.

The Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba, translated as the Royal Stables, are located next to the Alcázar and were built in 1570.  Home to the magnificent Andalusian horses, we devoted a whole post about these magnificent animals here.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, Spain

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, SpainPuerta del Puente or Gate of the Bridge was built in the late sixteenth century (circa 1576) in an urban renewal project and effort to spiff up the city with a ceremonial gateway.  Located at the opposite side of the Roman Bridge from the Tower of La Calahorra, the gate is a beautifully elegant structure built in the Renaissance style.

Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Plaza del Potro is one of many public squares in Córdoba.  Once a horse market, the plaza has a Renaissance fountain dating from 1577.  Off the plaza is the Posada del Potro, a legendary inn described by Cervantes in his book, Don Quixote (1605) as a “den of thieves.”  The inn is now home to the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, a museum which has the reputation as “possibly the best” flamenco museum in Andalucia.

the Plaza del Potro - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain - photo by No Particular Place to GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was sacked by Napolean.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the “Nightmare of Europe” fought Spain, Britain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula.  His armies sacked the city (1808) and for a time were garrisoned in the Alcázar.  Before leaving Córdoba, they seized the Andalucian horses, long prized for their reputation as adroit war horses, to use in their own invasion, which almost led to the demise of the breed.

Once upon a time, Córdoba sided with Franco early (1936) in the Spanish Civil War.  Someday we hope to delve into this subject but for now, it’s definitely another topic and trip.

And they lived happily ever after ….  Well, maybe not all the time but our visit had us describing the city in long lists of superlatives to friends and trotting out the words “picturesque” and “charming” way too often.  Córdoba is a city that had us at hello and left us with the feeling that we had to say goodbye too soon.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nashsteet scene - Posada del Potro, Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoEver since we’d seen pictures of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, aka the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, we’d known that it would be at the top of our “must see” list when we returned to Spain.  Quite simply, there’s no other building like it in the world and if we had to describe it in less than ten words we’d say, “a sixteenth-century cathedral inside an eighth-century mosque.”  But that doesn’t even begin to convey the ten-plus wow factor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, without a doubt the most stunning religious place we’ve ever seen.  Nor does it suggest the promising symbolism of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoCórdoba’s history stretches back for more than two thousand years to its founding in the second-century, BCE and the land upon which the Mosque-Cathedral was built has long been sacred to many religions.  Originally there was a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god looking at both past and future.  When the Visigoths invaded Córdoba in the sixth century, they converted the temple to a cathedral dedicated to the gruesomely tortured martyr, St. Vincent of Saragossa.  Next came the Moor’s invasion at the beginning of the eighth-century and, for a time, the worship space was divided between Muslims and Christians before the cathedral was demolished to build the Great Mosque of Córdoba at the end of the century.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784 CE and lasted for over two centuries resulting in what UNESCO refers to as “the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”  Thousands of artisans and laborers were employed. Only the finest materials were used: stone and marble quarried from the mountains of nearby Sierra Morena and columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx recycled from the original temple and other Roman ruins around the Iberian peninsula.   Upon the columns were the double arches which allowed for support of the higher vaulted ceiling.  The lower horseshoe-shaped arches were made of red brick alternating with white stone that continually draws your eye.  The décor was fashioned from ivory, gold, silver, copper, brass and mahogany and intricate mosaics from azulejos (glazed, colored tiles) were designed. Interestingly, the mihrab or prayer niche, a piece of ornate artwork in dazzling colors that stands out among all the other splendidness, faces south rather than the traditional placement towards Mecca.  A remarkable and unique creation, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a central place of importance among the Islamic community and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoFollowing the Christian invasion of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a very visible trophy of Castillian Spain’s victory over a former Islamic land.  Besides the symbolism, the Reconquista and kingdom building was a spendy proposition and Spain, not wanting to divert its money from conquest to building places of worship, spent some of its energies converting mosques into churches.  The former Great Mosque of Córdoba was renamed the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated with the sprinkling of holy water which allowed the transformation of religion from Islam to Christianity.  Over the years a couple of chapels were constructed to the side of the vast space and the four-story minaret, from which calls to prayer were previously heard, became a tower for tolling bells summoning faithful.  For nearly three centuries, no major alterations were made because the church was a little occupied with imposing the one, true religion upon the land. In between converting Muslims and Jews to the correct religion or expelling the lucky ones altogether from the realm, they occupied themselves with the horror called the Spanish Inquisition.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the reigning monarch, King Charles V (also confusingly known as King Carlos I) turned his attention to the former mosque in response to a proposal by the church to build a cathedral within the center.  Overruling the objections of the people, the King, completely ignorant of the building’s unique beauty because he’d never visited Cordoba, backed the church’s request.  The heart of the Great Mosque of Córdoba was demolished and over the next couple of hundred years (1523–1766) the cathedral was built in a variety of styles ranging from late Renaissance, Gothic, and Spanish Baroque.  Like many cathedrals, it’s breathtaking with its ornately carved mahogany altar and the plunder from the New World gilding surfaces in silver and gold.  A variety of semi-precious stones are used throughout the area and oil paintings of notable events and personages are abundant.  It is however, bizarrely at odds with the original architecture of what was once Islam’s crown jewel.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoThere is one more strange and short chapter in the story of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.  In 2006, the diocese of Córdoba dropped the Mezquita (Mosque) part of the building’s name and began to simply call it the “Catedral de Córdoba” in what was seen by many as an attempt to hide its Islamic origins.  In 2013, an online petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the omission.  Finally, in April of 2016, a resolution of the dispute between the local authorities, the regional government of Andalusia and the Catholic Church was reached and the building is now referred to as the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex or Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.

We started out this post by writing about the hopeful allegory of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.  In medieval times Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and perhaps the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba might be seen again as a symbol of religious tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism.  We can only be optimistic …

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

 

 

 

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba and The Andalusian Horses of Spain

We took the “slow” train from Seville to Córdoba for under €14 and a less than ninety-minute journey through flat, mostly rural countryside, lushly green from the recent rains. We’re not sure why Córdoba hadn’t popped up on our radar well before our last trip to Spain but once we started reading about the city and its history, it rapidly rose to the top of our places-to-go list.  Not to say that we don’t usually do a little preparation before traveling to a new place but this time we were unusually prepared with a two-page list of things to see, including a place we’d run across only in passing; described as a “hidden treasure.”  Located next to the Alcázar of Córdoba, we could see the Royal Stables (aka the Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba ) from vantage points atop the Alcázar’s walkways along the old walls as well as a lone horse and rider practicing a series of moves in a small arena.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, SpainThe Caballerizas Reales date from 1570 when King Felipe II, described in many accounts as “a great lover of horses,” commissioned Diego López de Haro y Sotomayor to build the royal stables where he hoped to breed thoroughbred Spanish horses.  Not that we’ve visited many stables but we can safely say that these will be among the grandest we’ll ever see and why these stables deserve a place as one of Córdoba’s historic monuments.  The stable area is massive, almost cathedral-like in atmosphere, with a long center hallway and horse stalls on either side.  Sandstone columns support a cross-vaulted ceiling and numerous, small windows light the space in addition to suspended lanterns.  A new stable houses the royal horses while the old stable contains many elegant coaches and conveyances once used by the royals and other elites.Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, Spain
Old royal stables, Cordoba, Spain

 

Old royal stables, Cordoba, SpainAnd here in the royal stables, according to a decree by King Felipe II which laid out formalized standards, the pure Spanish thoroughbred, known as the Andalusian horse, was officially documented as a breed.  From the very beginning, the horse was incredibly popular among European royalty and became a symbol of the Spanish empire.  The horse carried the conquistadores to the New World and its reputation as a prized war horses almost led to the demise of the breed in the Iberian Peninsula when Napoleon invaded Spain in the 1800’s and seized them for his own invasion.  Luckily a small herd was sequestered at a monastery in Cartuja near Granada and the breed recovered.  Today the Andalusian horses number over 185,000.

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainQuite by serendipity and even before we visited the stables, the Hostal La Fuente where we stayed told us about the equestrian show, “The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse.” Purchasing the tickets (a great value at €15 for an hour’s performance) also allowed us to visit the arena during a rehearsal.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseThe program was a terrific chance to see these magnificent creatures display their intelligence and beauty. Far from knowledgeable about horses in general, we didn’t have to be die-hard horse lovers to be completely captivated by the graceful and magical performance.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseFor those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience.  For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

 

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

We were captivated with the intricate footwork, stylized gaits and beauty of the whole performance.  At times, it was almost as though as invisible string could be seen between the rider and horse as they seemed to communicate intuitively.  Obviously, the training involves hundreds of hours with a very skilled trainer and/or rider and an incredibly intelligent horse.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainInformation:  The show is every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays at 20:00 and Sundays beginning at 12:00. Entrance to The Caballerizas Reales is free for visiting, from Tuesday to Saturday during the morning hours from 11:00 to 13:30 and afternoon hours from 16:00 to 20:00.

Special thanks to our friend, Kiki Bridges, who generously shared her photos for our post.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

All Roads Lead To Seville

Visits to the city of Seville, Spain, bracketed our year of 2016 neatly, highpoints on either end.  Our first stay in January had us wowed and promising ourselves we’d plan a return to see more of the city.  Our visit in December, had us feeling the same, leaving us with the anticipation of more to see when we go back. And during the year, we skirted the city several times on our way to other places in Spain.  In fact, the joke seemed to be that, from Lagos, Portugal, all roads lead to Seville.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

One thing we’d learned from our previous visit to Seville: a car was more hassle than it’s worth.  With an historic area that’s compact and walkable as well as daily parking rates that can go upwards of €30, taking the bus was an easy decision to make.  We bought bus tickets, packed our bags, obtained the phone number for a taxi driver and set our alarms for an early Sunday morning departure.

Note to Selves:  Reserve a taxi for early Sunday morning getaways.  We’d made many early morning taxi rides previously but failed to realize that Sunday mornings are sacrosanct to Lagos taxi drivers.  After being turned down cold by the gentleman we’d been assured would drive us, we went down our list of phone numbers with a growing sense of unease.  And at 06:15 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun rousing hard working taxi drivers from their sleep only to be told a groggy “no” for a ride to the bus station.  We came up with a hasty Plan B (and a Plan C should we need it), drove over to our friend’s home who was coming with us and hitched a ride with her pet sitter who’d just arrived. He at least was happy to accept €10 to schlepp us to the station.

The previous week had gifted both Portugal and Spain’s southern coasts with several inches of rain and, because the Algarve is a rural province, the fields were varying shades of green.  The rain followed us all the way to Seville but, after our first day of playing enthusiastic tourists braving the occasional rain showers (and minus one umbrella at the end of the day) the weather changed to cool and partly sunny, perfect sightseeing conditions.  And, for self-professed history geeks and wanna-be culture vultures, Seville is the perfect place to indulge your interests.  There are endless things to see and do in the city but here are 9 things we can recommend:

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go1) Topping our list for a revisit, The Real Alcázar of Seville is a group of palaces over a thousand years old dating back to the 11th century.  The upper levels are still occupied by Spain’s Royal Family which makes it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.  We have to agree with Lonely Planet who said they hoped that “heaven looks a little bit like the Alcázar”  and we were head-over-heels wowed during our first visit in January.   A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, one, two, three pictures and more are worth a thousand words. Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe paid the extra money for the self-guided audio tour but, after only a half hour of listening, left the earphones dangling around our necks because (we can’t believe we’re saying this) the didactic, historic monologue proved to be a huge distraction. This is a place to stop and stare, listen to the fountains and breathe in the scent of sour oranges – a place that really just needs to be enjoyed.

2) For those of you thinking, “Seen one cathedral too many,” the Cathedral of Seville or Catedral de Sevilla is an awe-inspiring, tremble-at-the-knees, kind of place. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The third largest church (a football field would fit inside easily) and the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, it’s also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We’d visited the cathedral during a service the first time (the organ music was sublime) which limited what we could see and a return was also high on our list of things to do.  Built between the 15th and 16th Centuries, the body of Christopher Columbus is entombed here in splendor and, should you wonder where all the gold Spain plundered from the New World ended up, the 20 meter (66 feet) altar would be a good start. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

The bell tower of the Cathedral deserves a special mention below.

3) The Tower of Giralda was built in the 12th Century as a minaret of the Great Mosque which formerly occupied the site of the Cathedral of Seville.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At 105 meters (343 feet), the tower is an iconic symbol in the city.  Topped with a 16th century belfry and a weather vane of a huge bronze, statuesque beauty nicknamed “El Giraldillo” bearing a cross, there’s no mistaking which religion is on top of the tower now.  There’s a separate charge to climb the tower and, as you climb the THIRTY-FOUR ramps up, there are alcoves along the way to (pretend) to admire the incredible views while you gasp for breath.  And bells that vibrated us right down to the soles of our shoes when they tolled.   Giralda Tower-Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

View from Giralda Tower - Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go4) Lest you think that Seville is only full of centuries old palaces, mansions and churches (and it is, it is!) the Plaza de España was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929, a kind of World’s Fair. Located in the city center in the middle of Maria Luisa Park, the brick monument is an exuberant combination of Art Deco, Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture, embellished with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles.Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoThe enormous brick buildings form a semi-circle around a plaza complete with a moat-like canal running through it and crossed by four gaily-painted bridges.  To say we were captivated might have been an understatement and, with the blessing from the warm weather gods, we decided to nix our plans to visit the museums originally on our itinerary and instead spent hours wandering around the grounds, watching inexpertly rowed boats float by and soaking up the feeling of stepping back to the previous century.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go5) Seville celebrates all things Flamenco, an intense dance linked with Southern Spain’s Andalusian Roma, aka the Gypsies.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

By chance, we happened upon a street performance with a thin and wiry dancer who struck theatrical poses, clapped her hands and finger-snapped, swirling and stomping her feet upon a wooden platform.  Her male companions played the guitar and tambourine, while one cupped the microphone in his hands and sang mournfully. Flamenco dancer and musicians. Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go We were so intrigued by the street dance that we followed a friend’s recommendation (thanks KemKem!) and bought tickets for an evening concert.  The flamenco conjures up enough intense emotions to satisfy any drama queen and we also fell under the spell.   In fact, when we did a little more reading about the art form the next day, we learned that UNESCO had “declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.

A slightly blurry but nonetheless stirring performance.

A slightly blurry photo but nonetheless, a stirring performance.

6) We’re not quite sure how the massive and very contemporary (2011) Metropol Parasol came to be built in the old quarter of Seville’s La Encarnación square but we appreciated the jarring contrast between the ancient and ultra-modern sights of the city.  Claiming to be the world’s largest wooden structure, we had no trouble imagining the controversy its construction would have roused since its six parasols have earned it the less-than-stellar nickname, “Incarnación’s mushrooms.”  However, we loved its sensuous curves and swoops as well as the walkways on the highest level which gave us an amazing 360° view of Seville. Metropol Parasol. Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe came to Seville with a map and list of things to do and see but it seemed that the city set its own pace.  We saw more than we realized but found that we also slowed down to enjoy:

7) random and rambling walks throughout the historic city,

8) sharing a cone of roasted chestnuts and stopping at sidewalk cafes to savor tapas and lingering meals with friends and

9) absorbing the sights and sounds of an ancient city coexisting with a metropolitan city of modern and sophisticated people.

At the end of our second visit to Seville we were unsurprised to count the many things we’d seen and done but, like all great experiences, we were left wanting more.  We have many more trips to Spain planned for 2017 (Madrid, Salamanca, Bilbao, Leon…) and, since all roads east of Lagos, Portugal lead to Seville, Spain, it won’t be hard to talk us into making a third visit to a city that’s got a piece of our hearts.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A note of thanks to our awesome friends Kiki Bridges, and Tim and Anne Hall who blog at A New Latitude who made this trip even more fun by sharing the adventure with us!rainy day in Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Shoot ‘Em Ups and Spaghetti Westerns in Tabernas, Spain: Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

We left early in the morning to make the seven-plus hour drive from Lagos, Portugal, to Mojacar, a resort city where friends were staying in Spain’s Costa del Sol region.  The toll road (the A-22) that took us along the southern coast of Portugal was smooth and sparsely populated and, after several months of driving along this stretch of road, we felt sufficiently confident to listen to an audio book while the miles passed.  As usual, we traded the time behind the wheel back and forth and, with a cooler for drinks and some snacks, we only needed to make a few, short breaks.  About five hours into the drive we passed north of Granada and were thrilled to see the Alhambra atop the hill in the distance which we had visited a few months earlier and wrote about here.  The highway began to climb and wind through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and we spied snow on many of the higher peaks although it was almost summer. Oleander, with pink and white flowers, and bushes with brilliant yellow blossoms filled the median of the highway with vibrant color for miles.  Evidently this was a major freight route because we passed uncountable numbers of long haul tractor-trailers (we’re not sure who drawled, “We’ve got us a convoy” from the old song which cracked us up) laboring their way up the slopes and braking on the downside.

Presently, we left the highway for a two-lane road; the land became more arid and the small olive groves and vineyards that we could see from the road thinned out.  We passed through little villages and wondered out loud why people had chosen to live in such an inhospitable country.  And then, like tech-dependent travelers everywhere, we checked our GPS and finally (a throw-back to our generation) we pulled out our road map of Spain as well to check our whereabouts.

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape (see the cemetery?)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape

And there we were – right in the middle of the Desierto de Tabernas, surrounded by landscape that looked strangely familiar, like something out of an old, western movie: dusty, dry with low-lying scrub brush, ravines, plateaus and mesas.  In fact, the Tabernas Desert is located in Europe’s driest province, Almeria, where rainfall averages around 6 to 7 inches annually and has the distinction of being the “continent’s only true desert climate.” Evidently, we weren’t the only ones who thought of America’s southwest and old western movies as we gazed at the passing scenery because a few miles down the road we spotted a huge, honest-to-God billboard for “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.” Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Here’s the landscape made famous by many of the old “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term widely used to describe the international films, most of which were directed by Italians and included multilingual crews and casts from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the US. In fact, between 1960 and 1980, over 600 European Westerns were made.  Sergio Leone, an Italian who shot many of his movies in the Tabernas area, was the genre’s best known director and his wildly popular film-making style in the sixties made his movies international box office hits.  We’d seen the three movies known as the “Man with No Name” or “Dollars Trilogy” with the up and coming star, Clint Eastwood, which included one of our all-time favorites, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No wonder we had a feeling of déjà vu!Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas - Spain - photo by No Particular Place To To

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To GoThe sets built for many of the old spaghetti westerns were acquired by a stuntman-turned-entrepreneur, Rafa Molina, in 1977 and have been turned into a nostalgic western-style theme park called “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.”   At the entrance gate we handed over the not-so-insubstantial fee of 35€ which included a senior discount.  A few steps took us back in time – a hundred years and more – and place – the American wild west – as we strolled through dusty streets exploring movie sets, ready and waiting for their next role as backdrops in an old west or southwestern epic.  Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Boomers like us will remember the golden age of westerns, the weekly television shows like Rawhide, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. We spent many weekend nights at the movie theater where we could watch handsome men with watchful eyes and murky pasts pursue outlaws who had committed dastardly deeds, protect wagon trains of settlers moving west from marauders and chase after dreams of gold.  Cowboys built ranches, sheriffs delivered law and order by gun or by rope and merchants turned obscure outposts into bustling towns.  These were places where justice was pursued by a fast-draw hero with a dead-on aim, the bad men were easily identifiable by their black hats and “shifty eyes” and anyone foreign was either naïve or downright suspect.  Women knew their places, too: they kept their virtue unsullied and their mouths shut, looked slightly disheveled but alluring and listened to their men.  A feisty woman who questioned the way things were done always had questionable morals.  Stereotypes abounded and, now that we think about it, while westerns were lots of fun in their heyday, sometimes it might just be better to move on …

By Anita Oliver and Richard NashFort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, Spain Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Note:  We’ve only talked about the spaghetti westerns here but the Tabernas Desert and the surrounding area of the Almeria Province have served as the backdrops for over 400 movies of many genres including Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and are even seen in the 6th season of Game of Thrones.  Here’s a link with a little more background:  http://www.unique-almeria.com/movie-filming-locations.html 

Tales From The Alhambra

perfect reflection-The Alhambra

We’d been in Lagos for three months and were itching for a road trip to an epic destination, a way to celebrate receiving our one year Portuguese residency visa.  There was no question about where to go since we’d long dreamed of seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of mystery, myths and history.  A look at google maps showed us that the Alhambra, the palace of Sultans and Spanish kings was a mere six-hour drive – no magic carpet required.Sierra Nevada Mountains-The Alhambra

The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and the first references to a fortress perched high upon the hill, Al Sabika, dates back to 889.  It was all but forgotten until the mid-13th century when the ruins were renovated and rebuilt and the royal residence of the first Sultan of the Nasrid dynasty was established.  Protected by mountains at its back (the Sierra Nevadas) and thick woods surrounding it, the Alhambra was a reflection of the glory days of the house of the Islamic Nasrids, the last of the Muslim Emirates of Granada. There were twenty-two Sultans who resided in the palace city of the “Red Castle” with their wives, harems and courtiers. Of these, twelve were assassinated so, while the life of a Sultan was luxurious, it was not secure. Intrigue and in-fighting between Moorish tribes, royal courts, cities and generals was always present.  And, with the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the Moors finally retreated.  The flag of Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella!) was raised over the Alhambra on January 2, 1492, and after the Reconquista the near-by town (Granada) quickly encroached upon the palace walls.

The Alhambra

We began our private tour at the upper-most portion of the palace grounds at the northern end of the complex, the only section that was built outside the protection of the massive walls. The Generalife was the daytime residence and formal gardens of the royal family and it was here that the massive scale of the Alhambra became truly obvious. From this height the individual buildings, actually palaces in their own right, spread below on the lower hillocks.

The Alhambra

 

IMG_1179 (800x600)

It was a cold, January day and the numbers of tourists were nowhere close to the 8,000 maximum allowed per day during the high season.  The snows on the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, were muted against the leaden sky but when the sun emerged later in the day the contrast of white versus the blue sky was dazzling. The day of our tour only a fraction of the flowers were in bloom but the towering cypress that lined the walk and the precisely trimmed hedges in geometric patterns alongside the curves of orange and pomegranate trees were beauty enough for us.  It was easy to imagine the drone of bees amongst the profusion of flowers with butterflies flitting about seeking nectar as well as the lilting tremolos of birds that would be ushered in with the advent of spring. Yet, with the return of spring’s warmth would come the hordes of tourists.The Alhambra

Leaving the leafy greenery of the Generalife we headed south towards the protected city of the Alhambra. Just outside the walls were a number of businesses jammed into miniscule homes. Entering Lugna Taracea, a shop run by the Lugna family in the same location for over 150 years we stopped to watch skilled craftsman assemble traditional mosaics: patterns intricately inlaid with bone, silver, copper and a variety of woods. The Lugnas specialize in lacquered furniture and household amenities such as trays, boxes and tables, all beautiful, high quality pieces including a pretty, folding cribbage board that we bought for ourselves to replace the two we’d given to our son when we started our nomadic journeys.

making mosaics-The Alhambra

Once back inside the walls we wandered past bubbling fountains and reflecting pools, arched doorways, stone columns, tiled mosaic walls and carved ceilings of wood in detailed and complex patterns.

ceramic tile mosaic

ceramic tile mosaic

ceiling of inlayed woods

ceiling design of inlaid woods

tiled floor

tiled floors

Tortuously carved stucco adorned spaces not covered by tile, marble or wood in stylized motifs and twisting Arabic words extolled the greatness and glory of Allah.  Much of the stucco has faded to a creamy color although traces of color can be seen here and there.  It’s almost impossible to imagine the true assault upon the senses that the original painted stucco would have triggered.

The Alhambra

 

plaster carving-The Alhambra

Taking up the story once again of the conquering Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, we were shown the throne room where Columbus pleaded for funds to find a shorter passage to the Orient.  Our guide also pointed out where the initials of Ferdinand and Isabella (spelled Ysabella) were carved in stucco among the motifs and Arabic words along with the crown of the reigning monarchs.

Ferdinand & Ysabla -The Alhambra

The conquerors continued their redecorating by filling in some of the stucco carving with whitewash and both Charles V (1500 – 1558) and Philip V (1683 – 1746) destroyed portions of the original complex in order to erect their own palaces. (In fact, by the end of our fascinating tour, we were actively cursing the barbarous Spanish for their sacrilege and intolerance. The destruction of such beauty was, to our modern and secular minds, unconscionable.)

the Spanish Crown-The Alhambra

The game of empire building, which ran rampant throughout Europe at this time, continued when France, under the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded the Iberian Peninsula and in 1812 overran the southernmost part of Spain, including the Alhambra and Granada. Decamping the Alhambra a few months later, the French, under the command of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, an inefficient and apparently venial and vindictive King of Spain, ordered sappers to mine the Alhambra. An observant and brave Spanish citizen reached the fuses and removed them from the explosives, interrupting the chain of detonations that had been intended to level these magnificent structures. As a result, only a minimum of damage on the periphery was visited upon the Alhambra.The Alhambra

The mighty Alhambra fell on hard times, forgotten and neglected.  Squatters set up house.  In 1828, after visiting Madrid and writing a tract on his travels and observations, the American author Washington Irving journeyed to Granada where he encountered the Alhambra.  After taking up residence as a kind of “literary squatter” he was inspired by his experience to write “Tales of the Alhambra” which was published in 1832. It reintroduced the Alhambra to the West and the renewed interest assisted in the preservation on the Palace.  Spain recognized the Alhambra as a national artistic monument and initiated several decrees beginning in 1870 with the goal of preserving the complex.

The Alhambra
stained glass ceiling - possibly 14th or 15th century-The Alhambra

Nothing we had read, none of the photographs we had viewed, none of the conversations with those who had previously been there, could have prepared us for what we encountered at the Alhambra.  The immensity of the Alhambra cannot be fully appreciated until you are there. The staggering redundancy of beauty, opulence and craftsmanship simply overwhelms the senses.  Poets centuries ago called the Alhambra a “Paradise on earth” and we wholeheartedly agree.  And after visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site we suspect that the spirit of Allah still resides among the beauty that was designed to glorify him.

Allah - Arabic translation

Allah – Arabic translation

By Richard and Anita

 

Pillars of the Earth: La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada FamiliaOver twenty years ago we voraciously devoured the Ken Follett historical novel “Pillars of the Earth,” a huge volume about a 12th century stonemason who dreams of building a massive cathedral unlike anything seen before.  Tom Builder begins his life’s work knowing that it will not be completed in his lifetime but trusting that it will be finished.  And we couldn’t help but compare this fictional character to the real life Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who collaborated with the Catholic Church to design and oversee the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the most iconic structure in Barcelona.  Begun in 1882 and still under construction today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is Barcelona’s number one tourist site, welcoming over 3,000,000 visitors a year.La Sagrada Familia

Outside, the cranes tower over the basilica’s spires, plastic sheeting covers parts of the exterior and everywhere, throngs of people stand:  in long lines behind the gates, shorter lines awaiting admittance with their e-tickets, s-curved lines at the stands for audio headsets and lines awaiting entrance into the church itself.La Sagrada FamiliaThose not in lines gather alongside the walls with their heads tipped back and looking up, up, up, examining the carvings and sculptures, stories in stone, cameras clicking.La Sagrada Familia

And inside … We join the throng of people surging into the central nave and extricate ourselves as quickly as possible to stand quietly for a few moments trying to absorb the vast space. Organ music swells in the background and reverberates around us, voices are muted and there is the sound of shuffling feet.  We are awestruck.La Sagrada Familia

Above us the giant, tree-like pillars reach from earth to heaven, branches touching and supporting the spectacular vaulted ceiling.  Light filters in from enormous panels of stained glass through the branches and pillars of granite, basalt, porphyry and Montjuïc stone. The noise from the crowd fades and we are in nature’s hallowed forest.La Sagrada Familia

Much has been written of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s final work and all-consuming obsession. Gaudi, like the fictionalized stonemason of “Pillars of The Earth” was well aware that he would never live to see his life’s work completed and is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.”  At the time of his death in 1926 the church was approximately twenty percent completed and construction was expected to last for a few more centuries in a time when all stone was carved by hand.La Sagrada Familia

With advances in technology, machines to shape and tool the stone and computer-aided design, the hope is to finish the basilica in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death. Private benefactors sponsored the initial construction and Gaudi contributed his own money as well. At present the money received from ticket sales as well as donations from Friends of La Sagrada Família fund the continuing work at the site.La Sagrada Familia

Perhaps a highlight of our almost two-hour visit was the organ recital at noon of Ave Maria.  We were totally moved as we stood in the sublime surroundings of the central nave.  For people who profess no religious affiliations or interest we seem to find ourselves in churches and cathedrals rather often during the course of our travels.  Churches are often the place where a city displays its best architecture and art and the structure becomes linked with both a city’s history and identity.  This most certainly is true as La Sagrada Familia has become Barcelona’s signature emblem.

By Anita and Richard

One Street and Three Architects: Barcelona’s “Block of Discord”

crowd in front of Casa BatlloClose by our apartment in Barcelona’s Eixample District was the boulevard Passeig de Gràcia, filled with tourists, many of them gawking (like us) or lined up awaiting their entry at one or another of the landmark structures.  Among all the significant buildings however, is one block with addresses at numbers 35, 41 and 43 Passeig de Gracia, that generates considerable interest and lots of camera clicking.  Between the years 1898 and 1906 three of the era’s most important modernist architects took existing buildings on the block and refurbished them in such dissimilar visions and contrasting styles that the street is often referred to as “The Block of Discord.”La Casa Lleo i Morera

We bought tickets online for an English speaking tour given each Sunday morning and joined a surprisingly small group of four other people to visit Casa Lleo Morera, Passeig de Gràcia 35. The original structure was built in 1864 and in 1902 Francesca Morera, a widow of considerable wealth, hired the renowned architect,  Lluís Domènech i Montaner to refurbish the entire building as well as design a private residence on the second floor for the Morera family.La Casa Lleo i Morera

Morera translates to mulberry tree in English and representations of the tree are found throughout the house. The home is an astonishing collaboration by leading artists and craftsmen of the day and each room seemed to outdo the one before it by upping the WOW factor with stained glass creations, sculptures, original parquet floors with the mulberry motifs, woodwork and cabinetry, sculptures, mosaics and on and on. Everywhere we looked was another detail to draw our interest away from the preceding attention grabber.  It was a huge stimulus overload of art, design, color, textures.La Casa Lleo i Morera Sculptures by Eusebi Arnau tell the tale of Saint George and the dragon while elsewhere his sculptures show several objects relating to the notable technological advances of the time such as the lightbulb, gramophone and phonograph, camera and telephone.  In the dining room, surprisingly small because families of the era did not dine with guests at home, are seven mosaic panels on the walls by Lluís Bru and Mario Maragliano representing country scenes with porcelain additions of faces, hands and feet by a noted ceramist. La Casa Lleo i Morera We questioned one panel with a large patch of blue tile and where told that the mosaic was custom-made around a piece of the original furniture which was removed at a later time.La Casa Lleo i Morera

But our hands-down favorite were the huge bay windows of stained glass designed and created by Antoni Rigalt i Blanch and Jeroni F Granell with naturalistic scenes that dazzled and enchanted us.Casa Amattler

After sticking our heads into the open ground floor door of the foyer of 41 Passeig de Gràcia (admission free for the first floor only) we bought tickets for a tour the following day for the second floor.  Originally constructed in 1875 it’s called the Casa Amatller after the family who commissioned the prominent modernist Catalan architect, Joseph Puig i Cadafalch, in 1898 to refurbish both the inside and outside.   The outside façade was inspired by the style of Netherlands houses with its fanciful stepped gabled roofline and the inside is a rather gloomy but fascinating combination of gothic and neo-gothic styles. dining oom Casa Amattler

For our tour we climbed up the spectacular curving, marble staircase, donned cloth booties to protect the floors which had just been restored and stepped back in time to the previous century.  We wandered among rooms furnished with early 20th century period pieces.  The motto here seemed to be, “Let no surface go undecorated.” Everywhere we looked – floors, walls, windows and ceilings –  were adorned.

ceiling woodwork

ceiling woodwork

It was a visual assault of colors, patterns, textures and light and the very definition of extravagant opulence.  Here, as in the Casa Lleo Morera house, the architect had collaborated with some of the finest modernist artists and craftsmen in Barcelona, all who appeared to be in competition to show us their best, and we admired stained glass windows, mosaic walls and floors, surfaces of marble and elaborately carved wooden ceilings.Casa Amattler George & the dragon - Casa Amatller

The sculptors Eusebi Arnau and Alfons Jujol, displayed their talents with an astonishing assortment of dragons and knights, damsels and classically beautiful faces as well as fanciful creatures cavorting among vines and animals.Casa Batllo

Next door to Casa Amatller is Number 43 Passeig de Gràcia and the iconic Casa Batlló, one of the most photographed buildings in Barcelona and one of the nine structures in Barcelona declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We had admired its extraordinarily over-the-top exterior on our previous strolls around the neighborhood and whenever we had walked by, there was usually a long, long line in front of it waiting for admittance.  One day, with a few hours of time on our hands and without much planning, we joined the line, bought tickets (they can also be bought online to avoid the wait) and donned headsets for an audio tour.Casa Batllo

Built between 1875 and 1877 the structure was bought by Josep Battló i Casanovas who wanted the prestigious address and a home extraordinaire. He engaged Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, the renowned modernist architect who set about the task of renovating the building, both inside and out, bottom to roofline, between 1904 and 1906.  Gaudi redesigned the façade of the house with walls of stone that undulate.  These were plastered and covered with trencadis, a style of mosaic used in Catalan modernism created from broken tile fragments and glass. mosaic Casa Batllo

Often referred to as the “House of Yawns” because of its enormous, irregularly shaped windows on the lower floors resembling gaping mouths, it’s also referred to as “The House of Bones” because of the decorative bonelike pillars.  Salvador Dali, after seeing the house said, “Gaudí has built a house of sea shapes, representing the waves on a stormy day.”  The sinuous lines and the feeling of gliding through waves continued in the interior space of the house as straight lines and right angles were avoided by Gaudi whenever possible.  This created rooms that totally delighted us with their originality, watery colors and reflected and filtered use of light.Casa Batllo

Surrounding himself with the master artisans and craftsmen of the day the beautifully proportioned rooms are a synthesis of stained glass, burnished woodwork and floors of tile and parquet.  The house is crowned by a roof terrace every bit as extravagant and dramatic as the rest of the building.  Said to resemble a dragon’s back, the iridescent tiles catch your eye as the spine wends its way around chimneys and a tower topped with the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of Barcelona.rooftop - Casa Batllo

The “Block of Discord” showcases three magnificent houses designed by three men with totally diverse visions.  It’s a step back to an era where all things seemed possible, new discoveries abounded and modernism symbolized wild extravagance, innovation and creativity, artistry and astonishing genius.

 

 

By Anita and Richard

 

Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around

Arc de Triomf

Arc de Triomf

A couple of years ago we met a photographer friend, Paula, in Antigua, Guatemala who gave us some useful advice as we were checking out the sights.  Our eyes were trained on the uneven sidewalks and streets, both of cobblestone, to sidestep potential trips and falls and dog bombs.  When we looked around we’d try to steer clear of the numerous masonry windows, with decorative grille work, projecting from buildings at concussion-inducing head height and still try to take in the people, the sights and our surroundings.  And then our friend said, “Remember, if you don’t want to miss anything, look up.”Arc de Triomf

Luckily, in Barcelona there’s any number of things for a visitor to see regardless of where you look and one of the best ways is just walking around the city.  Our apartment was in the Eixample (Catalan for extension) district, a 19th century urban expansion that merged the old city with the street scenevillages and towns nearby.  The urban plan was the brainchild of the progressive designer and Catalan Spaniard, Ildefonso Cerdá.  A strict grid pattern of long straight streets crossed by wide avenues helps to keep even the most directionally challenged people (we’re not naming names) oriented. Of course it helps that the streets have signs and numbers on the buildings and maps are readily available at tourist information sites as well as online.  The thing we were most taken with however, was Cerdá’s unique design of octagonal blocks (picture the corner building with its corner cut off) which allows for greater visibility at each intersection.open intersection

A five to forty-five minute walk from our apartment in any direction could take us to a flower, bakery or ice cream shop.flower shop on street

Or we could find a grocery store, farmacias (pharmacies) with their crosses of green or red displayed, organic fruit and vegetable shops and numerous ATMs as well as  metro stations.pharmacy

And of course there were elegant churches.Cathedral near Sagrada Familia

Nearby, we found numerous restaurants and tapas bars, trendy clothing stores and even a castle called the “House of Spikes” built in 1905 by the Terrades sisters."House of Spikes" - 1905 Casa Terrades - Casa de les Punxes

One Saturday we came across an enterprising company who had set up ping-pong tables on the wide sidewalks near the landmark, La Pedrera.ping pong on the street

And on another sunny afternoon people relaxed near an avenue in lounge chairs that had been set out in the common area as an urban park.Sunday in the city by House of Spikes

And we found one of Barcelona’s locations for its bicycle borrowing program called “El Bicing” where we could take one of the free city two-wheelers for a short spin.free bikes for tourists

Another way to look up, down and all around was riding around on the double-decker hop-on, hop-Hop on -Hop Offoff buses.  We took advantage of these to orient ourselves to the city as well as sight-see and while we rode inside the bus for a few stops, riding on the upper level gave us an entirely different experience that we enjoyed much more. The city actually has two companies that offer the tours: the red buses from Barcelona City Tours with 2 routes and the blue and white buses from hop-on hop-offBarcelona Bus Touristic with 3 routes.  The prices are comparable, they both offer one or two-day tickets and each runs in a continuous loop from early morning to late in the evening so that passengers can hop off to visit the sights they want to see and then hop on for the next destination.  Audio guides and headsets give information in several languages and explain each area’s significance, pointing out landmarks along the way and giving a little history.

view from hop on - hop off bus

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

view from hop on - hop off busA few days into our visit to Barcelona both of us noticed our necks were stiff.  It wasn’t too difficult to figure out the cause as we were continually tipping our heads back or craning our necks.  There’s lots to see if one looks down, around and straight ahead but, in Barcelona it’s good to remember to LOOK UP too!

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

By Anita and Richard

 

 

The Quarry: Yabba Dabba Doo or A Most Unusual Abode

La PedreraResidents of Barcelona call the house “La Pedrera” (The Quarry) or “Casa Mila” after its first owners and, when we saw this totally unique abode, it was hard for us to put into words what was in front of our eyes. The building, constructed between 1906 and 1910, was an earthy sinuous form with a undulating exterior adorned with angular, black, wrought iron balconies as a startling contrast.  Perhaps because of our particular cultural backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons we thought at once of “The Flintstones” and a huge “Yabba Dabba Doo” cave-like dwelling rather than a quarry with its crumbled rocks and (Barney) rubble strewn ground. Whatever we thought though, we knew we had to see this most unusual building.  Disheartened at first by the long lines waiting for admittance we found another entry with a much shorter line and paid six Euros extra each for the privilege of an expedited entry into the building.

inside-outside balcony

inside-outside balcony

Inside the buidling inner courtyard

Inside the building inner courtyard

We’d done a bit of homework before our visit and learned that, in keeping with the other affluent Barcelona residents of the day (and no different from now) the original owners, Pera Mila and his wife, Roser Segimon (of whom it was rumored he’d fallen for her purse rather than her charms) hoped to dazzle and impress their fellow neighbors.  To that end they engaged one of the premier architects of the 20th century and Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, to design a trendy apartment building which included their own very spacious apartment.  And, whatever their original intentions, it looks like they gave Gaudi free rein. Gaudi was a fascinating man. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were coppersmiths and he grew up with the artisan heritage. In his youth he was greatly influenced by nature and incorporated this theme into his works throughout his life. Upon graduating as an architect in Barcelona in 1878 a professor is reputed to have remarked, “Either we’ve graduated a genius or a madman.”  In his early professional life he worked for and on behalf of the proletariat, then moved on to the bourgeoisie and finally became a devout Catholic and remained so until his death working under the auspices of the Church. It was during the middle period, when working with the bourgeoisie, that he accepted the commission to design the Casa Mila.La Pedrera After receiving our tickets for a self-guided tour we were equipped with audio headsets, selected English as our language of choice and were transported via the original elevator to THE ROOF.  The nearby roofs were just as expected, unspectacularly cluttered with satellite dishes, TV antennas, air shafts, duct works, AC units, the occasional solar panel and cats. But Casa Mila’s roof was a fantasyland: a kaleidoscopic arrangement of varied elevations with chimneys, ventilation shafts and duct works ornamented by sculptural coverings topped by what might have been mistaken as medieval knights wearing helmets. Some, decorating the ventilation shafts and the exits in particular, were covered with broken ceramic and marble tiles or glass forming colorful mosaics which reflected the sunlight. It wasn’t hard to imagine ourselves playing hide-n-seek in the vast, multi-leveled surface that wrapped around the light well dropping down through the floors. roof & sculptures  Following a staircase down a few steps we entered into the attic, originally a laundry and storage area, designed so that heat could rise through and out the open exits to keep the attic cool. This was not the typical, cramped and dingy attic of old but a huge space filled with 273 brick parabolic arches of varying heights that corresponded with the topography of the roof for which they provided support. Windows were placed intermittently and allowed light in, lending an airy and expansive feeling to this area. A small museum with models of Gaudi’s other defining works were on display.arches  kitchen Dropping down one level we were able to tour the one large apartment on the sixth floor open to the public, a welcoming, gracious and spacious living space. (We were ready right then to beckon for our suitcases!)  There were windows on the exterior walls, facing the city, and on the interior walls, facing the central light well so that each room was filled with natural light. No detail escaped Gaudi’s attention and the walls, ceilings, parquet and tiled floors, windows and window frames, doors and door frames, door handles and door pulls were all his creations: graceful, whimsical, beautiful designs that worked together and reflected his genius. And the size of the place – there were, if the count was correct, twelve rooms: a children’s bedroom, nanny’s room, sewing room, kitchen, bathroom, formal sitting and dining rooms, a master bedroom with ensuite bath (a novelty at the time) and more. The apartment was furnished in period pieces reflecting elegance and good taste, posh and plush. entry  Pere Milà died in 1940 and his wife, Roser Segimon, sold the building in 1946.  Over the years additional apartments were added and the space housed offices, an academy and even a bingo hall.  By the 1980’s Casa Milà was in poor condition and deteriorating while many of Gaudi’s decorative elements were lost forever with each renovation.  However, in 1969 Gaudi’s work received official recognition as an Historico-artistic Monument and in 1984 his work was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its “uniqueness, artistic and heritage value.”  In 1986 the Caixa de Catalunya Foundation bought La Pedrera and urgently needed work began in the following year on the restoration and cleaning of the façade as well as, eventually, all of the locations now open to the public.

Ground floor entry and staircase

Ground floor entry and staircase

It’s not hard to imagine what the residents of Barcelona thought during the construction of La Pedrera, a controversial building totally unique to its time.  It was filled with many architectural innovations such as an underground parking structure built to accommodate Senior Milas’s automobile and novelties including an elevator, a rarity at the time. However, we knew what we thought about Casa Mila by the time we reached the lobby in the planta baja (the ground floor) and returned our audio headsets.  Taking a last look around the entrance with its sweeping staircase leading to the upper floors we knew that we had truly been gifted by seeing this work of Antoni Gaudi, the talented genius-madman architect.roof By Richard and Anita

Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site: “A City Within A City”

Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant PauLike most first time tourists in Barcelona we put some time into reading online recommendations of sights to see, blog posts and, of course, our hero Rick Steves, who blitzes into an area, does a kamikaze run and finds amazing places and highpoints to mention to the masses and then moves on to his next big find.  Surprisingly, our destination, Sant Pau Recinte Modernista wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook we had and received scant, if any, attention in our other sources.  In fact, we found this UNESCO World Heritage Site by accident when we spread our tourist map on the table and started googling the sights.  On our map the Sant Pau Site takes up something like nine square Barcelona-size blocks, a vast amount of space and stands out on that fact alone.  Located just a fifteen minute walk from the iconic La Sagrada Familia it’s overshadowed by Barcelona’s multitude of tourist offerings but, the more we read about this place, the more intrigued we became.  And hey, we liked the fact that we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the cost was 8 Euros, a bargain by any standard.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

We approached the gate to this amazing complex along a side wall and were allowed tantalizing glimpses of the buildings within through several ten foot high iron gates.  The original location of The Hospital de la Santa Creu (the Hospital of the Holy Cross) dates from 1401 when the Council of One Hundred, the forerunner of the municipal council, and the Cathedral Chapter agreed to merge the six existing hospitals in the city of Barcelona. Located in the center of the city, it served the city’s residents for several centuries.  However, by the late nineteenth century, due to the rapid growth of Barcelona’s population and advances in medicine, the hospital became outdated and was unable to provide for its citizens’ needs; it was decided to construct a new facility.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Enter Pau Gil, a Catalan banker who left a philanthropic bequest for a new hospital which would bring together the latest innovations in technology, architecture and medicine and whose name would grace the completed complex, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.  An architect of European renown, one of the outstanding figures of Catalan Modernisme, was commissioned to design the new facility.  And here’s where architecture and art merge.  Lluís Domènech i Montaner put an ingenious twist on the traditional concept of memorializing the medieval hospital’s history, religious and cultural values.  He envisioned an area in the form of a cross (obvious symbolism here) as a “city within a city” sitting 45 degrees off from the urban grid where each building was assigned a different medical specialty.  And what buildings they were! Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Unlike any previous hospital these edifices lifted the very spirits of all who entered by combining Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Paunatural lighting and ventilation with huge splashes of color from stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, tiled roofs, turrets and arches contrasted against the dignified elegance of red brick and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pausculptures of disparate figures of angels and gargoyles, flowers and dragons.  The gardens were a unique inspiration by Domènech as they were designed to be used by the patients and their families as a cheerful and optimistic setting during the recuperative process. The grounds brought open space, nature’s beauty and life into a total holistic approach to health and well-being.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Domènech began building his Art Nouveau masterwork in 1902 using only materials of the finest quality for its construction and hiring only the most skilled craftsmen who were artists in their own right. Sadly he did not live to see its completion and upon his death in 1923 his son, Pere Domènech i Roura, took charge of his father’s magnum opus.  When the hospital was formally opened in 1930 there were a total of twenty-seven buildings, sixteen pavilions of which were built in the modernista style.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau served Barcelona’s residents for eighty years until the structural wear and tear on the buildings made it increasingly difficult for the old hospital to meet the demands placed on it and maintain the quality of care.  In the autumn of 2009, Sant Pau’s healthcare activities were transferred to a new and state-of-the-art modern building located in the northern section of the grounds which was better suited to the needs of present-day medical practices.

refurbishing the ceiling tiles

renovating the ceiling tiles

And while Lluis Domènech i Montaner’s superb buildings seemed to have reached the end of their working life as a hospital, the modernist complex evolved in a new direction and undertook a new mission.  Six of the remaining twelve pavilions have been thoroughly restored by craftsmen with an appreciation for the history and artistry of the original structures and two more are currently undergoing major refurbishments.  After four years of intensive restoration the Art nouveau Site officially opened in February 2014 and has reaffirmed the value of Domènech’s work as well as established Sant Pau as a major center for knowledge and a cultural landmark.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Guided tours are offered in several languages throughout the week as well as audio self-guided tours.  The complex serves as a fashionable venue for corporate and private meetings and evening musical concerts, ranging from classical to jazz to African and Latin-American music. The Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site has assumed its new role with the same grace, style and dignity for which it was renowned for when it was a functioning hospital in its prior incarnation.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

As we walked around the magnificent Administration Pavilion and gaped at the light streaming through the stained glass windows and colors on display in the mosaics we couldn’t help but be glad that we’d selected this site as one of our first places to see in Barcelona.  It may be off-the- beaten path for now but it’s a place that’s going to become more and more popular and populated as people discover it.  And then the serene gardens through which we strolled, contemplating the beauty and genius surrounding us, won’t feel quite as peaceful.

By Anita and Richard

 

What Lies Beneath: The Lost City of Barcino

Gothic quarterTucked away in the teeming-with-tourists Gothic Quarter of Barcelona we followed the narrow, twisting streets, backtracked along the cobblestones and still managed to turn ourselves around looking for one branch of the Museu D’ Historia De Barcelona.  Finally, we saw a plain brown sign with an arrow pointing the way to the entrance affixed to an unobtrusive building that was, indeed, the Museum of History of Barcelona. Go figure, this marvelous museum tucked away in the oldest part of the city which is itself just jammed to the gills with gargoyles, arches and cherubim.  Could it be that the citizens of the city are a bit jaded about their own rich culture?

And here was the museum, housed in A GOTHIC PALACE built between 1497 and 1515.  Serving as the public visage of the museum, the Casa Padellás was dismantled and moved, stone by stone, from its original location in order to preserve it during the construction for the International Exposition of 1929.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - the exit to the Gothic quarter

However, while the new site in the Gothic Quarter near the Placa Del Rei (King’s Plaza) was being readied the ruins of the original city of Barcino were discovered, one of the largest Roman settlements ever found. The archeological importance of the site was immediately understood and the palace was placed upon pillars to allow for the excavation and preservation of the ruins.  In 1943 the Casa Padellás became the headquarters for Barcelona’s Museum of History with the excavated city of Barcino lying beneath it

FYI

We stepped inside the museum and paid for our tickets (with one of us getting the geezer discount) then spent a moment to figure out how to change the audio tour handheld recorders to English.  After thumbing through the introductory pamphlets we viewed a video then took the elevator down two levels … and took a giant step back in time.  From this point we would slowly but inexorably climb back up to the street level and in the process pass through this incredible time capsule.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - public walkway and portions of walls

Beneath the Placa del Rei the immense subsoil museum (4,000 square meters) is devoted to the archeological history of the original city and its people and contains the remains of the fortress walls, homes, workshops and religious structures. Excavated between 1930 and 1960 and painstakingly conserved in this underground site, the timeline covers the period from the creation of the original Roman city to the establishment of the religious structures in the sixth century, a rather imposing sweep of time in one setting.

Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - rubble in fill of wallThe story and the tour began with the founding of the Roman city of Barcino between 15– 10 BC under the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was a colony for soldiers who had completed their obligations to the empire, their families and slaves.  Built at a defensive location on the top of a hill it was fortified by a stone wall with the city laid out in a grid pattern as was the Roman preference. As we gazed around at the stone walls, walkways and columns before us we noticed that, surprisingly, the Romans recycled stones, tiles, pottery and other rubble as fill inside the walls as they expanded the city’s perimeter;  little or nothing was wasted. In that respect, a rather thrifty and industrious group of folks.

walkway  with entrance to shop

entrance to shops

Walkway between shops

walkway between shops

aqueduct

aqueduct

Outside the homes of both the wealthy and the humble the city swirled around them as a place of social engagement and commerce but it also contained the minutiae that’s part of day-to-day living.  Although women lacked a political voice they did possess legal rights; they could buy and sell property and they were very visible in the life of the city. The city streets passed by numerous shops run by Roman citizens and one of the first excavations that we came upon was a public laundry. The clothes were washed and bleached in large round vats with ashes, lime and ammonia mixed with water. After the laundry was done the water would be washed down a drain and flow into an aqueduct which carried it outside the city to maintain sanitation. And the source of the ammonia?  (We loved this interesting little tidbit!)  In the streets, containers were assigned for urine collection from the public at large, which, when mixed with lime, resulted in an ammonia solution that was used during the laundering.

vat in garum factory

vat in garum factory

Also on display was a shop for processing garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment atop all sorts of dishes and beloved by Romans.  The mechanics were a bit messy but the fish (and leftover parts too) and shellfish were smashed, mashed, pulverized and marinated in large vats, macerated in salt and left to rot or be cured and then sold commercially.  According to the lore, the smell was so rank during the fermenting that the citizens weren’t allowed to make it in their own homes – hence the shops.   Definitely an acquired taste!

maceration tanks for garum

maceration tanks for garum

In one section of the ruins were public baths for both men and women:  hot water baths (caldarium), warm water baths (tepidarium) and cold water baths (frigidarium) which were intended to be used in succession. Massages were offered and then as now, the masses and aristocrats were concerned with their appearances.  Cosmetics and unguents and creams to moisturize or hide the signs of aging and whiten the skin were available.  Linseed was applied to shine the nails and a mix of honey and oats polished the teeth while laurel leaves could be chewed to freshen breath.

cold water pool, part of the public baths

cold water pool, part of the public baths

And what’s a society without its intoxicants?   The Romans were egalitarian in the use of wine and, regardless of class, wine was served along with bread and salt at every meal. Structures of a wine making facility were found in the ruins along with vats for fermentation, a wine-press and even a wine cellar.  The wine was produced in great quantities and, while considered an unimpressive, inexpensive wine, it was suitable for export and became a staple in the western Mediterranean.

wine factory with vats remnants

wine factory with holes for vats

Christian carving

Christian carving

Towards the end of our tour, well into our third hour of roaming the walkways and as our energy began flagging we came upon the ruins of a 4th century residence of an early bishop of the Christian Church.  As the Roman Empire declined the new religion of Christianity gained in popularity until, by the fourth century, Christianity was Barcino’s official religion as well as entwined in its political life.  Evidence of a small necropolis exists and there’s a display of several pieces of sarcophagi decorated with Christian motifs, some originating from Rome.  Additional renovations in the sixth century changed the bishop’s residence into a grander palace, added a new church and show a religion gaining in influence, power and wealth.  Lastly we admired the remains of intricate tiled mosaic floors and the remnants of some of the remarkable paintings that decorated the ceiling of the baptistery and walls of the episcopal hall.

mosaid tiles from Episcopal palace

mosaic tiles from Christian palace

It was rather disorienting to climb out of our subterranean time capsule and surface into the 21st century sunshine.   Maybe what was more unreal was that we emerged in the midst of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, another chapter of architecture, artistry, religion and history.  What a magnificent city!

By Richard and Anita