Category Archives: Unesco World Heritage Sites

Bohemian Rhapsody: Cesky Krumlov

 

We set off from our temporary home in Prague one sunny morning and drove south through the countryside of the Czech Republic, heading for the small town of Český Krumlov close to the Czech-Austrian border. The landscapes of the Bohemian region were the kind that artists dream of: blue skies with wisps of clouds, rural farmhouses and fields freshly tilled or planted with various crops in checkered hues alternating with huge swaths of bright yellow canola well over two feet high. Time passed by almost dreamily, as we gazed out the car windows at mile after mile of flat land and gentle hills and places where timber logging and sawmills seemed to be the main industry. In some areas, we tunneled through thick woods growing almost to the shoulderless, two-lane road. Here and there the highway wound through picture-postcard towns of small businesses and houses, many at least a century old, set close together, with steeply pitched roofs to discourage the accumulation of winter snow.  White lace curtains hung in the windows, like a throwback to some gentler time.

 

 

The GPS took us right to the little pension we’d reserved for two nights, Hotel Krásné Údolí, dating from 1568.  The smiling owner opened heavy wooden doors that had us guessing how old they might be and we entered into a cobblestoned enclosure.  Straight ahead was the owner’s apartment, to the right was the dining room for guests and at our left was a steep set of stairs leading to the hotel’s six rooms.  Walking down the short hallway we had a chance to peek in the rooms and were totally charmed as each room had its own beautifully painted mural featuring a fair maiden from long ago and a country landscape embellished with flowers. The en-suite bathroom had an ultra-modern, glassed in shower with multiple jets, the Wi-Fi was acceptable and there was even a little dorm style fridge and a comfortable sitting area.  Throw in an ample breakfast that was included in the price of 53 US dollars a night and an innkeeper who did his best to answer our questions and we were doing a happy dance!

 

 

And then there was the town of Český Krumlov itself which topped the quaintness scale and then some.  Called “one of the most picturesque towns in Europe,” this jaw-droppingly, beautiful medieval town situated on both banks of the Vltava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to its intact architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries.

 

 

With more than 300 Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses, most of which date back to the 14th through 17th centuries, the passage of time has not done much to alter Český Krumlov’s appearance.  Careful renovations have preserved details that had us swiveling our heads: an assortment of gabled roof profiles, frescoes painted across many facades, ornate sundials, shutters, and decorative iron grills over windows and the pleasing harmony of red-tiled roofs.

 

 

Inside many of the former grand houses are restaurants serving delicious Czech dishes, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, museums, jewelry stores offering the semi-precious Moldavite stones found only in the Czech Republic, and shops selling traditional Czech crafts such as wooden toys, Czech puppets and sparkling crystal.  The street layout follows the horseshoe bends of the Vltava River which flows through the medieval town and the feeling is like stepping back a few centuries.  We strolled about the narrow and winding streets, admiring various houses, window shopping, stopping for a drink here and a meal there, in no rush to be anywhere but exactly where we were.

 

Plague Column

Eventually, all the streets we wandered would lead us back to the central town square, flanked by colorfully painted buildings with a fountain and tall Baroque sculpture anchoring one of the corners. Known as the Marian Column or the Plague Column, the statue dates from 1714 and commemorates the victims of the 1680-1682 plague epidemic. At its top and wearing a golden halo, is the Virgin Mary accompanied by the eight patron saints of the town.

 

But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because, before and during the evolution of the town, came the State Castle and Chateau Český Krumlov.  Built on a rocky outcrop alongside the river Vltava, the castle overlooks and dominates the old town which was built around it.  Second in size only to the Prague castle, the original buildings date all the way back to 1240 while additional palatial buildings were added between the 14th and 19th centuries.  The massive complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures totals an impressive forty structures with a covered bridge, gardens and five courtyards.

 

 

Of all these eye-popping gems, however, the stupendous mid-13th century Renaissance tower which stands out at its 178-feet height and magnificent, beautifully restored frescoes in all their pastel beauty.  A cheap admission of about $2.50 will pay the entrance fee to the tower for the privilege of climbing the 162-steps of the spiral staircase to the very top for a heart-stopping panoramic view of the city.  Two of the four bells hanging in the tower date back to 1406 and other small bells known as clock bells are estimated to be four-hundred-plus years old.

 

 

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring size, the castle enjoyed centuries of quiet and prosperity and the Vltava River served as an important trade route in Bohemia. The castle and its lands passed peacefully between families from the original Lords of Krumlov in the 13th century to the Lords of Rosenberg who reigned over the region’s Celtic, German and Slavic descendants for three centuries until about 1600 and played host to artists, scientists and merchants from all over Europe. The Castle was sold to the House of Eggenburg and the town became the seat of the Duchy of Krumlov for about a century until it passed in 1719 to the House of Schwarzenberg who governed for over two centuries. Seized by the Nazis from its last private owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg, in 1940 and then confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 during the Communist era, the castle was neglected and ill-maintained as was the town until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Today, careful restoration and its inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 has guaranteed that this fairy-tale city and castle can be enjoyed by the citizens of the Czech Republic and people from all over the world.

 

 

As far as we’re concerned, Český Krumlov is a town that zaps you back in time and can only be described in superlatives.  We spent much of our time there gawping, head-swiveling, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing and stretching our lips into wide grins while we rhapsodized over this Bohemian treasure.  Be sure to include it on your “Must See” list and don’t forget to wear your comfortable walking shoes!

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Have car – will travel!  And travel we did during our time in the Czech Republic, putting many kilometers on our can’t-lose-me-in-a-crowded-parking-lot, neon-green, rented Skoda during the week we had it.  As luck would have it, the little city of Kutná Hora, population around 20,000, was only an hour east of Prague and almost dead center in the heart of Bohemia, making it easy to heed the advice of several friends to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

cistern

The original silver mining settlement of Cuthna Antiqua, Old Kutna, was settled as early as the 10th century but its economic fortunes were tied to the establishment of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, Sedlec Abbey, in the nearby village of Sedlec in 1142.  The combined riches of the silver mine on the monastery’s property and Old Kutna’s mines led to economic boom times.  In 1308, King Wenceslas II (aka King Václav II) established the Royal Mint in the city which produced the silver Prague groschen coins that were then the hard currency of Central Europe.  Considered the treasure-house of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia and favored as a residence by several kings and the ultra-wealthy, boom town Kutná Hora rivalled only Prague in importance of enormous wealth, political influence and culture for several centuries.

 

 

According to one of the brochures we snagged at the tourist information center, there are more than 300 Gothic, Baroque and Classical buildings in the city and a walk around the historic center’s narrow and winding streets was a must-do introduction.  Much of the building took place in the 14th century and included a rich residential architecture of places fit for the royals, homes for the very wealthy and their lessors, churches, monuments and a couple of cathedrals reflecting the enormous wealth of city.  Over the years, many of Kutná Hora’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and war but the continued income from the silver mines allowed for these to be reconstructed or replaced as needed.

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

The spires of the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of miners, dominate the skyline of Kutná Hora from a hill overlooking the city.  There’s really no way to describe this cathedral, whose construction began in 1388, as anything but magnificent.

 

 

Even those tourists who are “churched and cathedralled out” should find many things to appreciate in this over-the-top cathedral with its arches and vaults, flying buttresses and frescoes, multiple stained-glass windows, murals, sculptures, gargoyles and, not to be forgotten, a completely rebuilt and restored Baroque pipe organ from the 17th century.

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

Financed by generations of local blue-blooded families whose fortunes depended both on the politics of the day and riches from the silver mines, the construction of the cathedral was an on-again-off again holy project that spanned several centuries until it was finally declared finished and consecrated in 1905.

 

 

Without a doubt, Kutná Hora is a jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown of historic cities. But, among all its charms, we highly suspect that its most popular tourist site might be the small Cemetery Church of All Saints.  Also called the Ossuary at Sedlec, it’s more simply known as the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. The Sedlec cemetery dates from the 12th century and because of a legend claiming it contained soil from the city of Jerusalem – and was thus a part of the Holy Land – became very popular in Central Europe as a last and eternal resting place.

 

 

Over the centuries, thousands were buried in the cemetery – upwards of 30,000 victims from the recurring plagues or “Black Death” and thousands more slain in the religious Hussite wars. The cemetery became extremely crowded and was closed in the 15th century. The remains of an estimated 40,000 people were exhumed from their not-so-final resting place and unceremoniously heaped inside and outside the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints. A century later, a half-blind monk stacked these bones up neatly into huge pyramids that lined the interior walls of the chapel and gave the faithful some room in the middle for worship. Over the next few hundred years, relics constructed of bone were arranged decoratively in the spirit of “memento mori” – the medieval practice of reflecting upon mortality.

 

 

However, the really bizarre (and endlessly, ghoulishly fascinating) attraction of the Bone Church was the interior decorating performed with a macabre panache by master builder, František Rint, in 1870.  After cleaning and bleaching the bones of the not-so newly departed, he created all sorts of fanciful decorations including an enormous chandelier that includes every bone in the body, a crucifix arrangement and a coat of arms in tribute to his employer … His work is even signed with a flourish in – what else?  bones!

 

 

As the centuries passed, Kutná Hora experienced its share of hard times. Repeated appearances of the plague, the religious Hussite Wars in the 15th Century, the flooding of its richest mine in 1546 and the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) all contributed to its decline.  By the 16th century the silver mines were producing less and less and were finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately, time seems have treated the city kindly and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 ensures that it will be a destination to explore and enjoy by people like us for (hopefully) many generations to come.

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Wenceslas Square in Prague, Saints and Statues

The city of Prague in the Czech Republic shot to the top of our travel list when friends casually mentioned that an old coworker of theirs had offered them his family’s apartment in the city and said we were welcome to join them for the month of May.  The words, “free accommodations” had us checking flights from Lisbon to Prague and the welcome mat was barely unrolled before we arrived with our suitcases and a long list of things to see and do.

 

 

Wenceslas Square was our starting point, a long boulevard which connects the Old Town of Prague (history first mentions Prague in 1091) with the New Town.  We guess in Europe “new” might be a bit of a misnomer as this area was founded in 1348, ancient by anyone’s standards. During the Middle Ages the rectangular area was called “Horse Market” since that was the business conducted there but, during the 19th century Czech national revival movement, citizens decided the name needed to be upgraded to something a bit more dignified.

 

 

Enter the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, whose mouthful of a name was bestowed upon the square and in whose honor a noble statue was erected. On the south end of the boulevard is the Czech National Museum (a neo-Renaissance structure undergoing renovation and closed until 2020) and the statue of Saint Wenceslas astride his mighty steed and flanked by four Czech patron saints.  The Mustek metro station is on the north end with a cable car intersection nearby which has cars hurtling by every few minutes (look both ways!) and the streets become narrower and kind of funnel you past a street market right into Old Town Square.

 

 

And in between?  Doubtless there’s shopping elsewhere in Prague but it looked to us like this might be a good place to load up on everything from souvenir magnets to cashmere scarves to Czech crystal, fine jewelry and designer fashions. There are banks, hotels, bookstores, casinos and apartments as well as plenty of restaurants with outdoor tables to people watch and enjoy traditional Czech food or find other favorite international dishes from Thai to Lebanese to McDonalds.  There’s lots to catch your eye as you look around but bend your neck back a little bit because the best views are overhead.  Here is the realm of architectural eye candy!

 

 

 

 

We had a hazy recollection of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, but the history of the Saint himself, Duke Vaclav I of Bohemia (Wenceslas is a Latinized version) is but a few sketchy details and a whole lotta legend and myth.  Born around 907, he was the son of a Christian father and a pagan mother.  When his father was killed during a pagan backlash against Christianity in 921, the young ruler became the pawn in a power struggle between his Christian grandmother, Ludmilla, and his pagan mother, Drahomira.  Ludmilla won initially and raised the boy for a few years but was eventually strangled by supporters of his mother.  Once Duke Vaclav, by all accounts a devout and pious Christian, assumed full power he had his heathen mother exiled.  He fostered the spread of the Christian faith, was generous to widows, orphans and the poor, founded several Christian churches and kept the Bohemian people independent.  However, in 935, while on his way to Mass one day and, as the story has it, right at the church door, he was brutally hacked to death by minions of his younger brother Boleslaus.  The pagan brother assumed power and was thereafter known as Boleslaus the Cruel. (His biography is undoubtedly a lot more interesting than that of pious brother.) Soon after Vaclav’s death, he was being hailed as a saint and martyr for the faith and miracles were reported at the site of his murder and at his tomb. The cult of Wenceslas spread throughout Bohemia all the way to England.  Several years after the murder his remains were dug up and reinterred at the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex.

 

 

Taking a break from piety and patron saints, we explored the area just a block off Wenceslas Square and saw a very different statue of Vaclav/St. Wenceslas in the art-nouveau shopping arcade, Lucerna Palace.  Created in 1999 by Czech sculptor David Černý, “The dead horse” hangs upside down from the ceiling of the marble atrium with its tongue lolling out and Saint Wenceslas astride.

Wenceslas Square was a great introduction to Prague and the site for many dramatic events throughout the centuries.  Recent history includes the October 28, 1918, proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence. Following by only a few decades, the square was the scene for Nazi rallies and parades of Nazi tanks in 1939 and during the German occupation. The Prague Uprising by the Czech Resistance in May of 1945 at the end of WWII, marked the end of one era and the beginning of the Soviet Union’s imposition of a puppet regime upon the Czech people.  The brief Spring Uprising was suppressed by Soviet tanks massed in Wenceslas Square in 1968.  Finally, during the Velvet Revolution (November-December of 1989) massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square led to the peaceful end of the Communist Era in the country.

Today, the square keeps drawing us back, to wander and gawk at the architecture, enjoy a meal and take endless pictures while we join the other sightseers and locals and enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful city.  Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is rapidly becoming one of our favorite cities.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Tram Cafe

Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

Once Was Enough: A Visit to Marrakesh

In the Medina-The PlazaWe took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. We gazed out the windows at the dusty, brown landscape, piles of trash here and there and shabby towns passing by and we talked about a song from the late sixties, Marrakesh Express, sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  For us, the city symbolized some of the spirit of the sixties and seventies, attracting rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, celebrities and the wealthy from all over the world as well as the young and adventurous.  The city sings its siren song to travelers like us, older with many experiences behind us but still eager to explore its souks, gardens, ancient streets and history.In the streets

We climbed into a taxi and set off for our lodgings located within the Medina of Marrakesh, the older, walled portion of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Fez and Casablanca, the streets were teeming with people in western and traditional dress sharing the thoroughfares with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, mules, horses and carts.  Here and there we spied some of the many scruffy cats that slink about the streets, lingering occasionally to enjoy a bit of sun.  Our attention was drawn to two mules, hitched together alongside the road and a man beating one frantically with a stick who had his teeth sunk into the neck of the other.  And then, in an unexpectedly shocking act of violence the man picked up a large rock and hit the offending mule savagely in the head.  Shaken and a bit sickened by what we’d seen we continued on, our anticipatory moods subdued by the event.Dar NaJat

For our living arrangements we had selected the Dar Najat, a traditional hotel, featured on Trip Advisor.  A dar is similar to a riad in that it is a three to four-story residence organized around a central courtyard but it lacks the interior garden and fountain. Our host, an energetic and dreadlocked young man with a wide, welcoming smile showed us to our small but clean room with rock hard beds and vividly colored bedspreads and pillows. The vibe was most definitely young and hip (in fact, we got the feeling that a joint or chunk of hash could be ours for the asking) but we felt comfortable and joined the few other travelers on the roof top dining and lounging area.  During our stay, we started each morning with a vast assortment of Moroccan pastries, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and bitter, strong coffee to fuel our adventures.In the streets - Medina wall

Today, Marrakesh is a huge draw for tourists all over the world and consists of its old city, the Medina, fortified by the (not so) red sandstone wall which gave it the nickname, “The Red City” and is surrounded by modern neighborhoods.  However, it should be kept in mind that it is one of the world’s most important trading centers, stretching from antiquity to the present day drawing merchants and buyers from the Maghreb (all of North Africa west of Egypt), Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Europe. One of Morocco’s four former imperial cities built by the Berber empire, its history stretches back over a thousand years to its founding in 1017; a city that has survived feasts and famines, plagues, anarchy, the plotting of feudal lords, military coups and political intrigues.in the Medina

We spent a couple of memorable days in the company of our driver, Taoufiq, who showed up our first morning at Dar Najat promptly at 9 to collect us and walk us the short distance from the Medina to the square where his van was parked. His older brother Daoud, an erudite and well-spoken gentleman, accompanied us and shared the history of this fascinating city.  The following are some of our favorites:

  • The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.  An interior courtyard let in the day’s weak sunlight and featured intricately carved stucco walls, marble floors and ancient, hand-worked cedar trim enclosed by a warren of dormitories.  It was fascinating to imagine the lives of its male inhabitants, as many as 900 at a time, who studied in its environs over the years.  The madrasa closed its doors in 1960, underwent extensive refurbishment and was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.Medraza de Ben Youssef
  • The El Bahia Palace, first begun in the 1860’s, was completed a couple of decades later by a former slave who rose to wealth and power, Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought hundreds of craftsmen in from Fez to lavishly embellish it.  Intended to be the greatest palace of its time, Ahmed Ibn Moussa lived there until his death in 1900 with his four wives and an entourage of twenty-four official concubines as well as the multitude of children who accompanied them.  With 160 rooms of reception halls, private quarters, interior courtyards with fountains and the two acres of gardens surrounding the palace, the place is a mouth-dropping delight of carved stucco panels, zelig tiles, arched doorways, carved cedar and painted ceilings.Palais BahiaPalais Bahia
  • The twelve-acre botanical garden, Jardin Majorelle, was designed by the French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947.  In 1980 the garden was bought by Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there after his death in 2008) and his partner, Pierre Bergé, who continued the efforts to preserve the garden and share the artist’s vision with the public.  Bird song and the play of water trickling from fountains accompanied us on our walk and voices were hushed, much like being in a church.  An astonishing variety of cacti, some fifteen to twenty feet high, are included among the three-hundred plant species from five continents. The buildings on the grounds are painted a bright blue that is named after the artist, bleu Majorelle.Jardin MajorelleJardin Majorelle
  • We’d missed seeing a working tannery during our time in Fez so a visit to the Tannery District was high on our list, a chance to see how leather has been processed for well over a thousand years.  Our guide, Dauoud presented each of us with a large clump of mint and told us to breathe through the leaves while we were there.  The noxious stench was visceral.  The animal skins are brought by mule or donkey from the slaughterhouse and then piled high awaiting their turn.  Men worked in and near vats filled with various mixtures of diluted cow urine or pigeon feces (ammonia cleans the hide of remaining fat, flesh and hair) and the hides are spread out to dry.  A ghastly pile of scrapped-off animal hair stood to one side.  Then the hides are immersed in other vats filled with natural vegetable dyes (indigo, henna, poppy, cedar wood, etc.) and at some stage the men knead the skins with their bare feet to soften them further.  The process was fascinating to watch but we definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with vegetarian preferences.tannery
  • We’re not shoppers by anyone’s definition but a stroll (if you can tolerate the aggressive vendors who surround you whenever you pause to examine an item) through the Souks of Marrakesh are an integral part of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the city.  Here it seems like everything you can imagine is for sale from slippers to jewelry, medicinal herbals to geodes, leather goods to carpets.In the medinaIn the medina
  • Lastly, the heart of Marrakesh, the Jemaâ El Fna (historically used for public beheading by rulers seeking control) is the center of Marrakesh’s activity, tourism and trade.  We’d thread our way through the narrow streets of the medina and throngs of people at the end of each day to sit on the second-floor balcony of one of many restaurants overlooking the huge square and meeting place of the Medina. We could easily have been transported back centuries as we ate lamb, chicken and sausage dishes along with the ever-present hovis, round unleavened bread, washed down with a-ti’, sweetened mint tea. Below, unfolded a tapestry of musicians, dancers, snake-charmers, henna artisans, food vendors, alms seekers, magicians, acrobats and hucksters out hustling the masses that flowed through and around the square striving to make a living.  Wandering through the surging throng seeing what was to be seen took fortitude to ward off the persistent vendors who weren’t turned away with a polite headshake or firm “No.” It soon became apparent that when one’s camera was raised what quickly followed was a hand insisting on a small remuneration for the privilege. It seemed that everywhere we turned there was a demanding hand or a wheedling voice trying to sell us something and it didn’t take long before we’d decide to forego the fascinating scenes playing out before us and tire of the intimidation and harassment of the vendors and flee.In the medinaIn the Medina-The Plazain the medina plaza

In 2015 Marrakesh was named by Trip Advisor as its most popular travel destination in the world.  That fact alone should have served as a warning to avoid the city…  While we enjoyed much of our time there we found that we were also uncomfortable many times with the repeated demands for money and pestering to sell us goods in which we had no interest.  At the end of our third day in Marrakesh a full moon hung low in the sky and we boarded a night train heading back to Tangier and home to Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

 

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

It’s FEZinating! Ten Things We Liked About Fez, Morocco

Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez.  To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago. old cemetery overlooking Fes

We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries.  Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.

satellite dishes

The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez.  As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses.  But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport.  Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through:  the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.

The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything.  The following is our list of recommended favorites:Ryad Ayla

1)  Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns.  Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place herestreet market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

2) Wander about The Medina of Fes.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity.  Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives.  With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload. La Belle Vue de La Tannerie-refurbished tannery

3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina.  Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats.  In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century.  A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted.  But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …La Belle Vue de La Tannerie

4)  Shop in a Leather Souk.  Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs.  The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths.  And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.pottery shop

5)  Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile.  Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops.  We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.Ceramic factory

However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art.  There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.mosaic

 

Jardin Jnane Sbil-Royal Gardens-Royal Gardens

6)  Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century.  Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings.  However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.King's Palace (one of them)

7)  Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors.  Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.building details in Medina

8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies.  For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining.  Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …carved doors Jewish synagogue

9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue.  This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings.  However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll.  The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk.  And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.weaving a traditional rug

10) Practice saying “No.”  A-L-O-T.  Perhaps we should have written this advice first …   No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not.  At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors.  Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact.  Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!handwoven traditional carpets

Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices.  The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

It’s All Relative: Old and “New” Fes, Morocco

narrow passages in Medina-UNESCO WHSWe arrived at Ryad Alya in the old Medina of Fès long after the sun had set, following a couple of young men who “offered” to show us the way to our hotel down the dimly lit and narrow lane and piled our small suitcases in a hand cart.  After tipping them and then upping the tip a bit more when they made the face that we became very familiar with during our time in Morocco – basically a grimace conveying the meaning that we were stingy foreigners who had shown disrespect for those who had labored diligently to meet our every need, whether requested or not – we finally escaped into the opening door of our hotel and into another world.

Hassnae, an attractive young woman dressed in skinny jeans like any university student in her 20’s, welcomed us into the riad, a traditional Moroccan house of three stories built around a courtyard.  Furnished with linen-draped dining tables, the large space had a comfortable feel with couches here and there along the walls for enjoying both the bubbling fountain and a garden with orange trees.lute player in Ryad Ayala

An elegantly dressed gentleman in a suit and polished black shoes was seated unobtrusively in a corner, plucking at the strings of a lute producing a soulful melody for the only couple dining.  Hassnae seated us in a lounge off to the side of the courtyard and served us little cups of mint tea, heavily sugared and pretty cookies that, since it had been awhile since our last meal on the road, we wiped out without much ceremony. lounge-Ryad Alya

She then showed us to our room, thankfully equipped with its own heater as the rooms around the garden were all open and it was cold.  Finally, we were able to shed our fleece vests, scarves and coats which we’d worn during our day of travel from Tavira, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and then to Fès. The beds were rock hard and weighted down with heavy blankets that kept us pinned beneath them but we had no complaints.  Actually, despite the late night sugar, we slept like we’d been heavily drugged.Ryad Alya

A tour of the riad the next morning, led by another friendly and pretty staff member named Shaimae, filled us in on the details of the paradise in which we’d found ourselves. Riads, once the fine homes of a city’s wealthiest citizens, lack windows on the exterior walls.  The architectural style is what Wikipedia calls an “inward focus” and opens onto the interior courtyard which provides the family complete privacy from the outside world.  Our riad, Ryad Alya, was originally built in (no typo!)1363.

Riad Ayla

The current owner whom we met that evening, Kholid Filoli, was an articulate, well-traveled Moroccan who spoke glowingly in English of his visits to the US.  He’d bought the riad in 2003 for his wife, an accomplished painter and his daughter, an architect living in Geneva.  The ancient house was renovated by skilled workers who spent three years returning the home to its current glory and converted it into a hotel with five beautifully furnished suites and three less expensive, but no less comfortable, rooms with their own private baths. The walls were embellished with designs in the carved plaster and zellige tilework, “a form of Islamic art” that features geometrically patterned mosaics.

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

During our stay in this Moroccan oasis the staff introduced us to many traditional three and four-course meals of unfamiliar and delicious foods, including our first taste of fava beans.  This had (one) of us cracking up intoning Hannibal Lector’s famous line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” UNESCO WHS-old city walls - Medina

We’d decided to explore the Medina on our own the first day and we set off with maps in hand.  The Medina of Fès was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and is said to be the best preserved old city in the Arab world.  Covering 540 acres, it’s also the world’s largest car-free urban zone and goods are brought in by donkeys, mules and hand carts. Called “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa,” this ancient walled city is actually divided into two medinas, the Fès El Bali or Old Fès dating back to the 9th Century and the “new” part, Fès Jdid, which dates to the 15th Century.  In this area that surrounded us with its sense of ancient history and present activity are great open spaces of gardens with sparkling fountains and avenues.

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

These skirt narrow streets funneling foot and animal-drawn traffic into lanes and crooked paths where it feels like a great crowd of humanity is pressed around you, engaged in the business of daily living.  Surrounded by walls, the Medina’s space has remained the same for centuries as the number of its inhabitants has increased exponentially resulting in overcrowding – probably not the best experience for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.  The passageways wind around in a labyrinth with age-old buildings of three and four stories abutting them and as the streets twist the sunlight overhead is partially blocked. building details in Medina

Behind the walls of these ancient buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair and ongoing attempts at restoration, are other warrens of buildings built around interior courtyards where thousands of people preserve customs and traditions passed down through the millennia.  In contrast to other parts of the world, Jews and Arabs have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years; there’s an old Jewish quarter occupied by a dwindling population as well as the Ibn Danan Synagogue dating from the 17th century. Throughout the Medina are schools for secular learning and madrasas where the religion of Islam is taught.  Groups of children passed by us greeting us in Morocco’s unofficial first language, French, with “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur,” the boys in street clothes and the girls uniformed in white coats resembling lab jackets worn over their street clothes.

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

Open shops on the ground floors offer anything a shopper could want: leather goods, jewelry, dried fruit and herbs, ceramics and metalware, every day and finely embroidered clothing for special occasions.  There are bakeries where families bring their bread daily to bake in communal ovens and butcher shops with fish displayed on ice next to pharmacies, barber shops, small cafes and restaurants.  Lining several of the twisting lanes were other vendors conducting an informal farmers’ market with brightly colored fruits and vegetables piled on makeshift tables.  Heavily laden donkeys and mules led by men in peaked hooded djellabas passed by and there were women completely veiled as well as those wearing robes and headscarves along with many younger women in western style clothing.   street market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

We were completely lost and completely caught up in the full sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes of different foods that we tried here and there.  We gave up on trying to figure out where we were on the map and wandered for a few hours trying to absorb the completely exotic, chaotic and alien world.  And finally, after brushing off multiple offers from the unofficial guides that appeared here and there with offers to show us selected sights and shops with “special” bargains, we struck up a conversation and agreed on a payment with a young man who pointed out places of interest as he helped us find our way back to Ryad Ayla for some much needed tranquility.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next post: Sights to see in Fes, MoroccoJewish Quarter-women in djellaba

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

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

 

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

 

Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

Captivated by Curasao’s Colors

PPunda District - WillemstadAmazed! Bedazzled! Captivated!  We could continue to run through the alphabet of words to describe our reaction from the moment we stepped off the plane through the weeks we spent driving about, swimming, strolling and hiking our way through this little island nation.  But there’s no doubt about it – Curacao is all about c-o-l-o-r.Scharloo District - Willemstad

floating market in PundaHowever, it wasn’t always that way.  Curacao’s origins date all the way back to 1634 and the original buildings were constructed from island stones and coral or bricks from incoming ships that had been used as ballast.  These structures were then coated with a lime plaster made from crushed coral and shells and the sticky paste from the aloe vera plant.  The white facades reflected the rays of the intense Caribbean sun and the sight of these white stucco edifices against the vivid blue sky must have been quite dazzling.PPunda District - Willemstad

Otra Banda District - WillemstadAnd here’s where the legend of Curacao’s love affair with color begins. There are many variations to the story (and the locals will be delighted to tell you them!) but it seems that the early 19th century Governor-General, Albert Kikkert, suffered from killer headaches. Thought to have been migraines, he believed that his severe headaches were exacerbated by the glare of the sun reflecting off the brilliant white buildings.  In the grand tradition of a ruling pooh-bah he issued an edict in 1817 that the buildings of Curacao be painted in a color other than white.    All the government buildings including the governor’s home were painted a deep yellow which still seems to be a favorite color throughout the island today.  And to take the story a few steps further and uncover a mercenary motive, we’ve heard it told that the governor had an interest in the local paint business, hence the mandate.   Another variant of the story was that paint colors were priced differently and yellow was the cheapest.  People painted their homes with more costly colors and even used two or more accent colors to reflect their status and boast about their wealth.  Some things never change…Punda

Google Curacao and one of the first pictures that appears is the historical waterfront, Handelskade, on the Punda side of Sint Anna Bay with its Dutch colonial houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Named number eight on Tripadvisor’s 2012 “Top 10: Fantastically colorful places,” the blocks and blocks of colorful homes and businesses in Willemstad’s Punda, Otra Banda and Scharloo historic districts will wow even the most travel weary.  And no one will dispute any of the reasons that Willemstad was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.Willemstad Punda waterfront

Otra Banda District - WillemstadBut the colors of Curacao are far greater than just the picturesque painted houses and businesses found ubiquitously throughout the island.   Everywhere one looks there’s a color that pops.  Overhead is the brilliant, bright blue sky with soft white cumulous clouds and the vivid orange troupials flying by or parakeets and parrots.  The Caribbean Sea shimmers, undulates, waves and roils in shades from a clear shimmering turquoise to a deep blue.  During rainy season green hues are underfoot and overhead. The largest park in Curacao, Christoffel, is filled with the deep greens of the many species of cactus, flowering in season, orchids and trees like the divi-divi or the highly poisonous, lime-green manchineel tree with its small and sweet but very toxic little apples.  And did we mention the corals and colorful fish below the water’s surface or the flamingoes wading through the Jan Kok salt pans?Caribbean hiking

Curacao could almost be compared to an onion with many layers.  For those who visit Willemstad for a day of sightseeing from one of the numerous cruise ships, the medley of Caribbean colored architecture with its curlicues and shuttered windows found throughout the winding city streets are the first few tiers.  But, if time allows and you have a few weeks or longer the island won’t disappoint you.  There are myriad opportunities for the eyes to behold the variety of hues existing with each new layer that is peeled back. It’s impossible to leave Curacao without a belief that you have witnessed something unique.license plate

By Anita and Richard

The Kunuku Homes of Curacao

kunuku houseWe’ve always been collectors.  However, as long-term travelers we carry all our possessions with us and our collections are now confined to friends and experiences, memories and digital pictures. And what fun we have as we find the things that make each place we visit unique.  On Curacao, we’ve explored many roads around the island and we’ve noticed simple homes with slanted sides scattered about the countryside.  As we’ve hopped out of the car for a better look and perchance a photograph we’ve occasionally been met by the family dog, for the most part in good humor, or occasionally by the proprietor perhaps curious as to the workings of the foreign mind.  And we’ve been counting, notating and reading about these houses as collectors are wont to do.Kunuku Museum

To our great delight we saw that one of these structures, called Kunuku houses, has been lovingly restored and is now a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Kas di Pal’i Maishi (Sorghum Stalk House) has been turned into a small museum dedicated to educating people about the lives of the slaves following their emancipation on July 1, 1863 and the homes in which they dwelt. During our tour of the grounds and house our guide was extremely patient and answered all of our questions as we struggled to assimilate this intriguing information.Kunuku house

Prior to gaining their freedom the slaves lived in makeshift shelters on the land near the plantation manors using native materials for their crude dwellings. Posts, poles and stalks provided the walls while a hipped roof covered with thatch provided protection from the scorching sun and torrential downpours during the rainy season. After the abolition of slavery some of the 7,000 people previously held in bondage were given plots of land upon which they could build a permanent home and raise a few staple crops.  For many of the former slaves, emancipation was just a word; a sharecropper system soon developed which tied them to the land and left them indebted to their previous owners. However, from these private holdings grew the Kunuku homes, some of which survive and are still in use throughout the island.Kunuku house

The permanent homes retained the same basic style as the improvised shelters. They were symmetrically rectangular with a centered doorway, a style recalling dwellings in West Africa from which many of the slaves had been abducted. Windows on each side and the high hipped roof took advantage of the frequent island winds to cool the home. The measurements were not exact but homes commonly would provide roughly 500 square feet of living space. The daub and wattle walls were tapered on the outside to provide greater stability. The interior of the walls were filled with compacted rubble and covered with a plaster made of clay, crushed coral rock and aloe vera which gave it a whitened and durable finish. The dirt floors were treated with a mixture of cow dung and clay which, over time, developed a reliably sealed surface. The peaked roof with rafters and supports provided a stable platform for the thatched roof composed of five layers of sorghum leaves.inside the home

The cooking was performed in a separate small building to reduce the chance of fire and the homes were divided into two rooms.  The larger room was used by all the family for their daily gatherings, meals and, at night, by the children.  The parents slept in the much smaller room which many times contained a bed with sloping sides and a patchwork quilt.master bedroom in Kunuku house

Outside might be an open aired privy screened by a cactus hedge and the house could also be surrounded by a pillar cactus fence of two to three rows to keep out roaming animals and define the property boundaries.Pillar cactus fence

Many of the Kunuku homes still in existence are occupied although, of course, in the 21st century the floors are tiled or finished concrete and modern amenities have been installed. The roofs, while still steeply pitched, are no longer made of hand-hewn logs with covered thatch but are corrugated metal or synthetic roof tiles. Some of the dwellings have additions or have been joined together but the original tapered walls and distinct symmetrical shape remains.Kunuku houses joined

Kunuku houseHere and there throughout the countryside are crumbling ruins and abandoned or damaged houses and these allowed us to view the interior of the walls showing the compacted rubble that lent strength to these structures.ruin of Kunuku houseThe history of Curacao is not solely in the Dutch architecture of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or its centuries old, imposing plantation houses.  The simple and time-tested Kunuku homes with traces of their African roots have also been recognized, reclaimed and preserved as part of the rich heritage of the island and give an additional depth of character to the people who live here.

pride in Kunuku heritage

pride of placeBy Richard and Anita

 

 

 

Capturing Cartagena in Photos

Cartagena, Colombia is a city of many facets from the ancient stone wall built by the Spanish to defend the old city from pirates and brigandsthe wall protecting the old city

the wall surroundingto the quaint and picturesque colonial architecture of the historic old town.

old historic cityold cityold historic city

Scattered across the city are parks, museums, restaurants and churches.La Catedral

Museum of Rafael Nunez Iglesia Claustro de San PedroThe old monastery, the highest point in Cartagena at the top of El Cerro de La Popa overlooks the Castillo, an intimidating fortress which protected Spain’s ill-gotten riches and safeguarded the city. ?????????????????????????????????

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Tourists flock to the tony hotels, restaurants and high-rises that line the fine sand beaches of the harbor in Bocagrandemonastery on hill in background; Bocagrande in the foreground

Bocagrande

and spill over to the more local neighborhoods like GetsemaniBarrio Getsemani Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

or Avenida Santander (where we lived) alongside the Caribbean ocean.

view from our apartment

beach across Avenida Santander

One doesn’t need to look too far to find statues and sculptures in public spacesPegasus in the plural??????????????????????????????????? ????????????

or street art upon building walls.street art in Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

Streets are filled with all manner of vehicles from taxis and buses to carts pulled by horses and donkeys or horse-drawn carriages.horse powered

an uninspired tour busAnd lacking all other resources, sometimes carts are propelled by people.human propelled

The residents of Cartagena are friendly, welcoming and quick to smile as well as to share a friendly word and point one in the right direction.  One gentleman, posed proudly for us after showing us around a museum. our guide - Irsis

However, there aren’t too-many freebies in this tourist driven economy and the more colorful characters ask for change in exchange for photos.street vendor

street mimeColombian vender

And at the end of the day lovers find a quiet moment in the niches of the old wall to watch the late afternoon fade into night and the sunset reflected in the sea.?????? Lovers in old wall

A  UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena is an amazing city and we greatly enjoyed our time here as we celebrated our third Christmas as retired nomads and welcomed in 2015.  Some places take a piece of your heart and we’ll leave a little of us behind as we move on to the Netherlands Antilles.vendors

By Anita and Richard

The Unconquerable Castle on the Hill: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

You know those geeky looking people you see on self-guided tours wearing the oversize, dorky black earflap headphones and squinting at their maps? That was us, complete with the big audio recorder that hung around our necks like a lead weight and bounced against our stomachs with each step.  At 9 AM in the morning we were already sweating buckets under the merciless sun and we hadn’t even started the climb up the hill.  We’d had a brief introduction to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas during our city tour a couple of weeks previous but the structure is so immense that we decided it deserved much more of our attention and time leisurely exploring it and besides, those tunnels looked like fun!Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

The fortress completely covers the Hill of San Lazaro, a brilliantly strategic site that overlooks both land and sea approaches and is nothing if not imposing in its very size. Begun in 1536 and completed in 1767 it’s the largest, most complex Spanish fort ever built in the New World.  Slaves, using pickaxes and shovels first flattened the highest knob on the hill, no mean feat in itself, and then commenced with building the garrison from the top down. The original portion of the work which included constructing the “Old Fort” should have taken five years, but the governor’s unmerciful schedule finished it in a year; the number of slave deaths went unrecorded.  Using rectangular blocks gouged from both the coral reefs offshore and from a quarry nearby (manned by slaves and unfortunates who had been sentenced to hard labor by the ongoing Inquisitional Tribunals) they eventually covered the hillsides with ramps and walls, sentry stations, watchtowers and bell-towers, weapons plazas, ramparts for cannon and artillery, etc.  Also built were the structures needed to maintain those 500 troops at any one time such as a central kitchen, laundry, hospital, foundry and huge cisterns to collect water during the rainy season in preparation for the times of drought.high walls and sentry postscannons at the ready

And then there were the miles of labyrinthine tunnels throughout the hill, many dug by Welsh miners brought over especially for the task.  There are only a few that are open to the public now but it’s not hard to experience a rat in a maze feeling and sense of disorientation when one takes a wrong turn.  The tunnels were used for moving and storing provisions (food, weapons, and gunpowder) as well as repositioning troops or even evacuation/retreat, if ever needed, through a fortified exit at the base of the Castillo.  They were structured so that the acoustics allow for discrete sounds, such as footfalls or verbal commands and alerts by ringing bells with pre-arranged codes, that carry through the intersecting tunnels. tunnel entrances

tunnelWe had to applaud the strategic placement of the castle where the land adjoining the Hill of San Lazaro could aid the Spanish most in their acquisition and safeguarding of the New World’s plunder from those (also!) avaricious pirates.  Residing at the base of the castle was a “hospital” for lepers where treatment consisted solely of prayer and whose location was avoided by all who feared the dreaded flesh-eating disease believed to be caused by demons. The area surrounding the castle on the three sides was a mixture of lowlands and hillocks which were frequently flooded by seasonally heavy rains.  An elevated roadway connected this inhospitable region to the castle and served as an avenue of supply; it was useless to attackers as the road was well protected by the fort’s cannons.Cannons at the readyplacement of the fort

Fetid swamps, lying to either side of the roadway, populated by swarms of mosquitos and carrying malaria and yellow fever that had been introduced to the New World by the African slaves, further hindered the enemy.  An army weakened by disease, exhaustion and thirst was an easier foe for the Spanish to vanquish. On the seaward approach three stone causeways, connecting the Castillo to the walled city it defended, were intended to be destroyed by gunpowder to thwart the enemy in the event of an attack. These heavily guarded entry points were the only means to access the bastion.old bridge - incompletearea surrounding the Castillo

The entire massive fortress stands as a testament to Spanish tenacity and genius. The geometry of the Castillo was fifty years in advance of that practiced in Europe; a full half century would elapse before fortifications on the continent would rival those in Cartagena. The Castillo itself was actually seven defensive structures built over time with overlapping fields of fire. Should an attacker actually breach one of the outer parameters they would find themselves confronted with enfiladed fire coming from two or more of the remaining six fortifications.  It was a death trap waiting to ensnare any adversary foolhardy enough to accept the challenge.fortress

Three hours later with the sun at its zenith, our faces sweat-streaked and flushed under our hats and our water bottles emptied, we walked down the hill.  Our awe at what the Spanish had accomplished in the building of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas had only grown. The fortress, along with the old City of Cartagena well deserves its 1984 recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth a lengthy and leisurely exploration.Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

By Anita and Richard

Off to Great Places in Cartagena de Indias

“You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”  The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss

We arrived promptly at el Museo del Naval de Carib at 1:15 where we met Irsis, our English-speaking guide from the previous day. It was he who had suggested that we take the city tour which included several of the scenic sights in this phenomenal port city. Plus he could offer it at 20% off the price quoted to us by a previous vendor. So, after having a complimentary coffee that was heavily sugared, we departed through one of the gates in the city’s walls to meet the bus which would be our chariot for the remainder of the day.

“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away.” Ibid.

Our chariotWe were greatly pleased when we saw our tour bus painted in gaudy colors with Bob Marley and the Wailers blaring out of the open sides; it was nothing so much as a rolling Sesame Street colored boom box. Firmly ensconced in our open aired seats we departed, taking a jaunt around the Parque Centenario en route to barrio Bocagrande, the richest barrio in this city of 1.2 million built along the powdery white sand beach of Cartagena’s harbor. As we tootled around collecting the rest of the paid passengers we gawked at the shops, many similar to tony venues in the States. With our full complement of lookie-loos we turned towards our first destination of the day, the waterfront at the city’s marina. Colombia’s navy and army maintain bases in the port area while, in the commercial area, the gantry cranes stand ready to on or off load containerized cargos from ocean-going transports. Small parks abutting the malecon appear in less congested areas.  Berthing privileges are also extended to the massive cruise liners that make ports-of-call in Cartagena.  To our chagrin, we observed their disgorged passengers as they followed their leader’s standard literally blocking the city’s narrow streets like a flock of demented goslings. the harbor area

 

 “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So … Get on your way!” Ibid.

Our next stop, and the main reason we had joined the tour, was a visit to the Cerro de Popa which would allow us an elevated view of the city, the harbor, the scattered islands and the waterways that enveloped the old walled city of Cartagena.  The name literally means Convent of the Stern referring to the similarity between the 492-foot hillock and the back end of a ship.  Perched at the top and overlooking the city with its white walls reflecting the sun’s rays is a picturesque colonial church (circa 1611) and a convent.Cerro de Popa

We learned that during the early years of the colony, around 1535, a clandestine shrine existed upon the hill which was used by the indigenous inhabitants and African slaves to worship the deity Buziriaco, which, history records, resembled a goat. Legend has it that an Augustinian priest received, in a dream, an order from the Virgin Mary to erect a monastery on the site. Having traveled to the hill of La Popa the padre discovered the goat shrine and promptly pitched it down the mount. This must have come as an immense relief to the indigenous Indians and black slaves, as normal retribution for such sacrilege by the Spanish involved nasty torture or hideous death and, on a bad day, both. Pitching the goat shrine down the hill was bupkis.

Ultimately, the ride to the top of the mountain was more memorable for the grinding of gears and the acrid odor of charred motor oil issuing from the antiquated engine of our glitzy boom-box bus than the Convent itself but inside was housed a memorable, dazzling altar encrusted in 22-carat gold leaf – a rather impressive upgrade from the now defunct Buziriaco goat shrine.gold encrusted shrine

We made two more stops prior to the finale, the first presented an absolutely impressive venue, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which we decided deserved another more lengthy visit and a later post all its own and the second stop to a sculpture of a pair of high-top sneakers that had little visual or historic note which we hereby omit.

“Things may happen and often do to people as brainy and footsy as you.”, Ibid.

the old Officers'  BarracksOur chariot came to its last stop in front of the old Officers’ Quarters, later converted into a prison and now in a revitalized iteration as a Latinized mini-strip mall. Approximately twenty small tiendas selling Colombian handicrafts, a combination of beautifully worked goods and shoddy souvenirs, were housed in the stuccoed and gaily painted barracks. During the half hour we were allotted, we wandered through six or seven shops before selecting a bolsa, a cloth bag, in black with a brightly colored embroidered and appliqued red parrot on the front to use as a packing organizer.street vendor in traditional Colombian dress

“Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And, will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)”, Ibid.

And so, five hours later and $36 lighter we were dropped off on a side street inside the walled city. We perambulated over to what has become one of our favorite eateries, Ilsabe, for a pleasant meal and emerged after dark to stroll the narrow streets decorated for the holidays, the lights in gay profusion from balconies, statues and enormous Christmas trees that decorated almost every park and plaza. It was a wonderful way to end a raucous and informative day in the city by the sea.clock tower lighted up

We are indebted to Dr. Seuss, ne: Theodore Gisselle, for his marvelous creation The Places You’ll Go, published January 22, 1990 by Random House Publishing Co. While it was the last book he was to write it was the first book that truly inspired us in our visions of travel.

By Richard and Anita

Cartagena de Indias: Before, During and After The Conquistadors

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at http://www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia is a jewel of a city sprawled on the Caribbean coast with a fascinating history that, like a trilogy, can be divided into life before the Spaniards, life with the Spaniards and life after the Spaniards.

Life before the invasion and land grab by the Spanish appears to have been rather idyllic in many respects for the original Meso-Americans drawn to this area as early as 4000 BCE by the mild climate and profusion of wildlife.  Here they built villages and engaged in a life as hunter-gatherers as well as some uniquely sophisticated irrigation and farming practices. Some agriculturalists had a belief system that viewed the world as a weaving of land, plants and water upon which the animals and people lived.  Potters made both everyday and ceremonial ceramics and goldsmiths (the Sinú people) devised several methods for making some pretty awesome jewelry for those in the upper echelons of their society. Of course, the elite of all the tribes engaged in some strutting to make sure that everyone knew they had riches.  Also practiced was intermittent warfare, with some tribes indulging in the art of barbecuing their adversaries. But by and large, life was good.pre-columbian gold artifact Cartagena pre-columbian gold from the god museum Cartagena

In 1501 CE, when the Spanish first landed in Cartagena Bay, the land was inhabited by several different tribes of people from the Karib (also spelled Carib) language group, who were found throughout the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish found the southern Caribbean coast around Cartagena unattractive to colonizers and departed elsewhere, leaving the Karibs in peace for another three decades.

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

When the Spanish returned in 1533, there were 200 settlers led by Pedro de Heredia and the Sinú people were forcibly displaced or enslaved while their ancestors’ tombs were looted for gold.   After their plundering was complete, many of the Spanish inhabitants scattered to the countryside to begin new lives as farmers. However, Cartagena was given a second opportunity to prosper a short time later when the city was successfully established as one of the great royal treasure repositories for the riches stripped from the peoples of Latin America.  As a renowned and flourishing outpost it became a major trading port for precious metals, pearls and emeralds. Gold, silver and emeralds from the mines in New Granada (later to be named Colombia) and Peru as well as pearls from the coastal waters were loaded onto the galleons bound for Spain via Havana.

With its fame and glory the now prosperous Cartagena was turned into an attractive plunder site for pirates and buccaneers – French and English privateers – licensed by their respective kings.  Now it became the turn of the Spanish to be threatened, then attacked; their cities and forts sacked and pillaged and their people killed. The pirates quickly closed on the victim with a strike in 1563 by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval followed quickly by Martin Coat for the British crown.  Cartagena’s defenses were repaired and strengthened after each incident but the work proved to be ineffectual.  In 1586 Sir Francis Drake arrived with a massive fleet, quickly took the city and exacted a stiff ransom from the Governor after destroying a quarter to the city. (See also our posts featuring Sir Francis Drake having his wily way in Panama at Fuerte San Lorenzo and Casco Viejo, the original capital of Panama.)

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

After this disaster, Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection.  Planning of the walls and forts began in earnest during the 17th century; the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses.  The last successful incursion on Cartagena was in 1697 by the French pirates Sir Bernard Desjean and Jean Baptiste Ducasse but by 1710 the walls were rebuilt, the forts reorganized and restored,  the public services restored and the buildings reopened.

Today the walls that surround Cartagena’s old town are its most significant, identifiable feature and a part of what makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The engineering works took 208 years and ended with some 6.8 miles of walls surrounding the city, including the fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named in honor of Spain’s King Philip IV. The Castillo was constructed to repel land attacks and was an anchor of the city’s defenses. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.P1050344 (800x545)

Cartagena WallsCastillo de San Felipe de BarajasSpain had one more infamous chapter to play in Cartagena’s history for, in addition to its prominence as a shipping port for the dispersion of the New World’s wealth to the Old World it, along with Veracruz, Mexico, became one of two licensed trade ports for African slaves in Central and South America. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia, who you may recall was the founder of the city in 1533, and were used as cane cutters to open roads, as laborers to loot and destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinú and to construct buildings and fortresses.  Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851.Three races

Colombia made several attempts to declare its independence from Spain and was finally successful in the final war for independence in 1821 led by Simon Bolívar.  It is the admixture of three races, the indigenous Meso-American Karibs, the Caucasian Spanish and the descendants of the African slaves, which gives Cartagena an ethnic richness. Several people have told us that those from Cartagena think of themselves first as citizens of this city because of its distinctive kaleidoscope of civilizations, heritage and history  and then as citizens of Colombia.

By Richard and Anita

Silk Underwear Concealed – Kleptocracy Revealed: Lima, Peru

Armas PlazaWe flew from Manta, Ecuador to Lima for a few days to meet-up with family members who were visiting for a week and on their way back to the States after spending a total of two-plus weeks acclimating to the altitude in Cuzco and then volunteering on conservation projects at Machu Picchu. We were looking forward to the reunion but we weren’t prepared for the fact that Lima is c-o-l-d, damp and gloomy.  The city sits in the northern fringe of the Atacama Desert which gets roughly an inch of moisture a year; 95% of that comes in the form of a fog that blankets the city each morning. At this time of year (November) it lifts briefly only to return in the late afternoon usually accompanied by a blustery wind. However, we were both excited to each inherit a set of silk long johns to warm us in the absence of sunshine.  We were assured that the sun does indeed make an appearance for two to three months a year starting in January, unimaginable as it then seemed. Love Park in bloom

Parque KennedyMost surprisingly, given this climatological fact, was the abundance of flowers in the parks and boulevards of the city; daily watering keeps the city in bloom. Parque Central and Parque Kennedy, near our residence were redolent with blooms and lazy cats stretched out and napping on the lawns. Love Park or Parque de Amor, was awash with flowers, a statue of two lovers entwined and intricately tiled mosaic walls. Plaza de Armas and Plaza del San Martin were similarly bedecked as were most of the wide boulevards with grassy medians.Armas Plaza and the Palacio Gubierno

Lima, and the adjacent port city of Callao, host roughly eleven million people, more than a third of the country’s population, with urban sprawl being a pronounced feature. The old Historic District radiates out from the Palace of the President, the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, San Fransisco Church and Convent, among the notables, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

We toured the underground crypts in the San Francisco church, a bastion of egalitarian burial. Each of the crypts were filled with ten bodies with no distinctions between classes and then covered with quicklime. The members of the religious order may have had a separate chamber but in death a commonality of the human condition was finally recognized.

We wound our way through tunnels with side chambers and came upon a unique feature, the ossuary, which was a circular crypt where the curators, displaying a macabre sense of design, had arranged the larger bones, tibia, fibula, etc. and skulls artfully in elaborate patterns.  We guessed that the smaller bones had sifted their way down to pile up below.

MuseumRafaael Larco HerreraAbout midway through our visit we caught a cab across town to the Museo Larco which was as fine a museum as we’ve seen anywhere, including all the offerings one might see in the Smithsonian. The grounds were a riot of colors, impeccably landscaped and it was a pleasure just to sit and gaze around at the spectacular gardens.grounds of Museo Larco

Funerary bundle with mask and gold crown

Funerary bundle with mask and gold crown

The benefactor, Rafael Larco Hoyle (1901-1966) began the museum in 1926 and, with his family’s financial backing, amassed a collection from archeological sites along Peru’s northern coast.Gold adornments

These included many cultures previously unknown and the objects were of precious and semi-precious metals and stones, ceremonial and everyday pottery and earthenware and vestments of the upper classes. In all, 45,000 items were cataloged and on display to the public.  After hours of wandering through this fabulous museum we were satiated and our eyes began to cross and glaze over!

Dueling set

Dueling set

On our penultimate full day in Lima we went to Museo Oro del Peru – the Gold Museum – another privately endowed property. The ground floor was more a monument to militarism and kleptocracy, devoted to armaments from the 16th through the 20th centuries from all over the world. We took a few pictures before being reminded that photos are discouraged but a “short” list of some of the implements of war and the related accoutrements follows: armor complete with codpieces, brass knuckles, dirks, a “Beefeater” uniform, Gatling guns, a beautifully polished Kalashnikov rifle presented by the USSR Ambassador, a plethora of fantastic European dueling pistols, maces, Moroccan scimitars and Nazi paraphernalia. Two over-the-top items were uniforms personally donated by Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain in 1938 and Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet of Chile in 1976.

After being sidetracked on the first floor for well over an hour we climbed down the stairs and reached our real objective, a subterranean level which housed within vaults containing gold, silver, bronze, copper, pearls, turquoise, weavings, funerary offerings, litters, and mummified corpses. In a nod to the ultimate equality of mortals a corpse of a lower class commoner was among the items. A corpse’s class in life could be determined by its position: a corpse laid out horizontally was in the lower classes as opposed to the corpse seated vertically in its funerary bundle in the higher classes.  In addition, death objects accompanying the body ranged from pottery shards to the elaborate which, again, made the class distinction painfully obvious.  One thing that struck us, just as we were again reaching our critical threshold of museum overload, was that the precious metals, pearls and stones would not have filled the hold of the smallest Spanish galleon. The fact that these items were buried kept them beyond the reach of the acquisitive conquistadores.San Simon Plaza

We barely scratched the surface of the city of Lima and didn’t explore any of Peru’s other magnificent and well-known sites.  But we had a terrific reunion with some of our family, learned a little about this country’s rich and varied history and, clad in our silk long underwear, departed gratefully for warmer climes.

Love Park - Lovers entwined and workers maintaining

Love Park – Lovers entwining and workers maintaining

By Richard and Anita

 

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