A Travellerspoint blog

Granada

The Alhambra

After the Christians smashed the army of the Almohad caliph in 1212AD the Muslim cities of Al-Andalus were doomed to be picked off one by one. After the loss of Seville and Cordoba, Granada was the last emirate left standing. Situated in the south of the peninsula and protected on three sides by the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada maintained its independence for a respectable 250 years before it finally surrendered to their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile in 1492.
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We had come to see the Alhambra, the celebrated Nazirid palace that Granada is famous for. The Alhambra isn’t a single building but a complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens. It is so popular that tickets need to be booked ahead (although the online booking service is currently offline while contract negotiations are underway) and visits to the palace complex are carefully scheduled. If you miss you’re scheduled slot, you miss out altogether. We booked tickets the day we arrived and but could not get into the palace until 7pm the following day.
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We started our visit at the Generalife, the palace garden that overlooks the Alhambra. Part of the Alhambra’s appeal is its situation. Originally built as a fortress, it sits on a dramatic rocky spur overlooking old Granada. Nevertheless, the Alhambra doesn’t look that impressive from a distance; like any other fortress really. But once you step into the Generalife gardens themselves you get a glimpse into what awaits you in the Alhambra. Ponds and fountains are arranged to provide perfectly framed vistas. It’s a photographers paradise.
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I was a little surprised when we entered the Alhambra proper to find large areas were in ruin. The administrative complex, barracks and market area that once supported the palace are little more than an archaeological site with a few rather plain gardens set amongst them. There was also a hotel, carpark and a church (the mosque which stood here has of course been demolished). The remains of a bathhouse is now a sparse museum to Spanish folk music. Next to the church is the enormous baroque façade of the Palace of Charles V. From the outside it’s simply a large 16th century building and not particularly interesting. Inside however it is extraordinary. The square façade changes into an oval promenade in the centre of the building. Charles V however lived most of his life in Vienna (where he was the first Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor) so he never actually used this building and its construction was never finished. It seems like a white elephant, an attempt to outdo the adjoining Nazirid palaces but falling far short.
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Next we visited the Alcazar or castle, which is the oldest part of the Alhambra. The view from the towers over Granada was impressive but there was little otherwise to see. At 7pm we joined the very long queue of visitors on the last scheduled palace tour. Despite the crowd we moved through very quickly. In the first hall everybody went crazy with their cameras but soon enough the crowd thinned allowing us to compose some decent photographs (I imagine quite a few people wandering through asking themselves what all the fuss was about). There are only a few pavilions and audience halls remaining but they are impressive for the extravagance of their decoration. Every inch of walls and ceilings are decorated with tiles and stucco work. Due to the scale of some of the rooms the photographs cannot do them the justice they deserve. The most impressive features however is the way that the pools, fountains and walls have been perfectly and deliberately aligned for the perspective of the viewer. Arcades and pavilions are mirrored for the perfect reflection. Sadly the Lion Fountain, which is a highlight of the complex, had been removed for restoration. In its place was an ugly glass case enclosing the bowl of the fountain.
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As we prepared to leave the heavens opened and the rain poured down in torrents. We sat under one of the arcades watch the rain falling into the pond. It eased up just enough for the security guards to hustle everybody out of the building. Shelly was the last person to leave, holding up the guards in order to get that last perfect shot.
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All in all the Alhambra is a great building and deserves its status in the top 50 buildings (and gardens) in the world. But I also think that part of the reason it is so highly rated is that it is virtually the only surviving Islamic palace complex left in the west. There were certainly bigger and better examples in Spain. The Madinat al-Zahra palace in Cordoba was possibly the most expensive and elaborate palace ever built. It had a three kilometre long arcaded entry hall, a throne room of marble and gold and its ponds were filled with liquid mercury. Unfortunately it was destroyed during a Muslim civil war and left as a forgotten ruin (excavations still continue to reveal its wonders). Other palaces elsewhere in Spain were all demolished by triumphant Christian conquerors. The only thing that saved Alhambra was Ferdinand and Isabella’s request that they be buried in the palace. Clearly they viewed the final extirpation of the Muslims of Spain as their most important achievement. In fact, that claim has pride of place on their tomb which reads something like this (excusing my poor Latin translation!): “Here lie their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand King of Aragon and Elizabeth Queen of Castile-Leon, subjugators of the Mohammedans and exterminators of the heretics.” Neither saw their wishes fulfilled. Their successors thought it unseemly that the Catholic Monarchs (as they were know) be buried in a Muslim building so they were buried in a specially made crypt in the new Granada cathedral. The chapel in which they lie is beautifully decorated with elaborate effigies. You can descend beneath the effigies to their plain lead lined coffins, along with the coffins of two daughters and their young son who was designated to be King of Portugal. Unfortunately you cannot take photos in the crypt but I managed to sneak a quick shot of the decorated gateway into the chapel.
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As for the people of Granada and all Spain in fact, the final defeat of the Muslims of Al-Andalus marked a dark turning point. Alfonso V of Toledo had called himself the King of the Two Religions and was always careful to respect Muslim public opinion for if he pushed them too hard there was every chance a Muslim army would ride north from Seville and Cordoba to remind him to honour his obligations. After the fall of Seville and Cordoba after 1212, Christian rulers had less to fear from the Muslims and so the persecution was ratcheted up a notch. After 1492 there were no more Muslim armies in Spain left to fear and so the persecution swung into full gear. Although Ferdinand and Isabella had promised freedom of worship in the surrender terms they immediately reneged. Muslims and Jews were given a choice - convert to Christianity and stay, leave Spain with 60 days, or death. Most people chose conversion. But even that wasn’t enough. Catholic churchmen quickly raised concerns that Muslim and Jewish conversions ‘were not sincere’, leading their Catholic Majesties to unleash the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!). Within a decade Granada’s population of 60,000 people had halved and of the 62 mosques in the city, not one remained standing.

Posted by paulymx 13:59 Comments (1)

In Andalusia

Sublime Cordoba

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Cordoba was an old Roman town and the Roman bridge still links the two halves of the city. To the north of the Roman bridge stands Cordoba’s famous Friday mosque, one of the architectural wonders of the world. The mosque was started by emir Abdul al-Rahman “The Immigrant”, one of the most interesting of Spain’s rulers. At the age of 19 he narrowly escaped the massacre of his family following the overthrow of the Ummayad dynasty by the rival Abbasid family. In his vivid and poetic memoirs, Abdul al-Rahman wrote how he escaped with his younger brother through the garden of his Damascus estate, carrying his four year old son in his arms while behind him he could hear the assassins murdering his mother and sisters. He survived by diving into a river and swimming to the other side but he lost hold of his son who was swept away. His brother, who could not swim well, paused at river edge and was hacked to pieces. For the next four years the young prince avoided the assassins sent to find him as he made his way across the Islamic world to Morocco. There he found shelter amongst the Berbers before crossing over to Spain in 756. For the next ten years he fought with rebellious emirs and the assassins the caliph continued to send to kill him before he finally brought order to Al-Andalus. The kingdom he forged would become an economic and cultural powerhouse and survive him by over a hundred years.
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For the first 50 years after the conquest, Muslims and Christians had shared Cordoba’s old Visigoth cathedral; the Muslims using it on Friday and the Christians using it on Sunday. In 770, Al-Rahman decided Cordoba to build a dedicated Friday mosque so bought the old cathedral and had it demolished. Largely conventional in design, the mosque features an outer courtyard with fountains and a grove of citrus trees, a minaret and a columned hall. All of the columns used in the construction were recycled from Roman ruins but proved too short. The builders compensated by superimposing a pair of arches over each column. The double arches in alternating bands of red and white stone are the mosques most outstanding feature and give the impression of a forest of palm trees. Over the years Al-Rahman’s successors extended the mosque, almost trebling it size.
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When the Christians took Cordoba in the early 13th century they too were impressed by the Great Mosque. It was converted into a cathedral and chapels were built around the outer arcades. One corner of the mosque was enclosed and the columns and arches covered in frescoes, which sit surprisingly harmoniously with the original design.
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It wasn’t until the 16th century when the archbishop had a late gothic style cathedral built in the centre of the mosque that substantial changes were made. The archbishop wrote to Emperor Charles V (who was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna) to tell him that with the completion of the cathedral Muslim heresy had finally been erased from Cordoba. If he thought this would have ingratiated himself with the Emperor, he was sadly mistaken. Charles wrote back curtly that he had “replaced something that is unique with something that is commonplace.” Such censure saved what remains of the mosque.

Posted by paulymx 00:17 Comments (0)

Holy Toledo

Toledo is about an hour south of Madrid. An old Roman city, it first rose to prominence as the capital of Visigothic Spain. It would later be the capital of Christian Spain until supplanted by Madrid in the 16th century. Like Segovia, Toledo is situated on a rocky outcrop set in a river bend. The river carves a deep gorge around three sides of the city, forming an impenetrable barrier. A huge wall pieced by enormous gates emblazoned with Hapsburg double eagle crest encloses the old city. The best view of the city comes from a park across the valley on the north side of the old town. There, a mounted statue of King Alfonso VI looking suitably heroic, casts his steely gaze at the city he ’liberated from Muslim oppression.’ The statue conforms to the 19th romantic view of the Reconquista but bears little resemblance to reality.
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For a start, Alfonso was no religious fanatic fighting for the glory of a restored Christian Spain. He was fighting for himself. He had lived in Muslim Toledo for three years while in exile and knew the city’s wonders for himself. Like almost everyone in this era of city versus city, he’d sided with the Muslims against Christians and against Muslims, depending on whatever advantage he could gain for himself. By 1085 he knew the emir of Toledo, who had been his patron and protector during his exile, had had enough of politics and so he made him an offer. After lengthy negotiations Alfonso took possession of Toledo and its emir took his money and retired to Morocco.

With Toledo in his possession Alfonso had gained both a jewel and the keys to northern Spain. The Visigoths had made few enhancements to the city and it had been a fairly rundown place when the Muslims first took over. For a couple of centuries Toledo remained a run of the mill, Muslim frontier town until the Ummayad Caliphate imploded at the beginning of the 11th century. As in Renaissance Italy, Spain splintered into a kaleidoscope of waring city states. In the long run it was fatal to the survival of Al-Andalus but in the short term it resulted in a cultural efflorescence as each emir tried to make their city more impressive than their neighbours. Toledo expanded to become an important city renowned for its university that drew scholars from the Islamic, Jewish and Christian worlds. At a time when the great libraries of Christendom might have a thousand books, Toledo university had a collection of over 100,000. There were also several public libraries and numerous private collections. The city also sported public baths - unheard of since Roman times - sewers and public street lighting.
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We arrived on Sunday afternoon so the city was quiet. We entered through one of the massive gates emblazoned with the Hapsburg double eagle. These gates were built in the aftermath of the Reconquista to advertise BOLDLY that the city was under new ownership. Inside the outer all they link up with the old Moorish wall and a lonely Moorish horseshoe gate, now sporting a statue of the Virgin Mary. We weaved our way up a steep street past chaotic road-works and scaffolding. A quick glimpse of distinctively patterned brickwork behind the scaffold revealed one tiny reminder of the city’s Islamic past - the Church of Cristo de le Luz. Built as a mosque in 999AD it currently being restored after years of dereliction.
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The city’s streets wind up and around the contours of the land while tall, ancient brick apartments loom over the street blocking out the sun. The city is reminiscent of Siena in Italy or Fez in Morocco. We could not find our way in the maze of unnamed streets. Eventually we stumbled on a square marking the university. It is still here after a thousand years. Alfonso understood well the importance of the university and its collected learning and placed the libraries under his personal protection. For almost two hundred years Toledos translators would make available to the west this vast corpus of ancient and eastern knowledge before the Inquisition arrived.
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From the university, whose facades still carry the faintest traces of Islamic calligraphy, we found our way to the cathedral in the centre of the city. The current cathedral replaces the mosque that replaced the cathedral that replaced the original Roman temple. Construction started in the 11th century and continued with modifications and additions through to the 16th century. The cathedral’s most notable feature is an oculus that allows light to stream directly onto a baroque altar. Several Castilian kings are buried in the cathedral but we could not find their tombs. The cathedral treasury contained an impressive collection of artwork (especially works by El Greco) along with a captured Muslim war banner (12th century) and the robes of Toledo’s arch bishops stretching back to the 13th century.
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It was a short walk to the Alcazar, the main palace of Toledo (currently closed for restoration). The Muslim palace that stood here was torn down and replaced by a very stark, very cold palace by Phillip II (of Armada fame) in the 16th century. It has all the grace of a Soviet office block, which says much about Phillip’s grim personality.

Although it was getting late, we decided not to stay in Toledo but would press on south into Andalucía proper. It was a long drive of over three hundred kilometres but we felt that any distance we covered that afternoon was distance we would not have to make up tomorrow. We bought some supplies (Red Bull, cheese, bread), filled the tank and set off. Less than an hour later we reached Cuidad Reale - the Royal City. This was the last major city before Cordoba and had been a Christian staging point for attacks on the Muslim south. We decided to risk making a dash across the mountains that cut divide northern and southern Spain.

The fall of Toledo spelt the end of Al-Andalus in the north so the Muslims defended themselves the simplest way possible. They withdrew south of the mountains. The mountains aren’t high but they are wide and largely uninhabited. As medieval armies needed to plunder supplies en-route this meant any invading army needed to transport all its own supplies across 100kms of difficult terrain and an army slowed down by wagons is an easy target for ambush. 600 years later this region is still a no-mans-land.
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When we finally crossed the mountains it was after 9pm at night and the road was pitch black. We decided to stop at the first town we came upon, which turned out to Montoroso. As we turned off the highway we turned onto what seemed a single lane road that wound down a precipitous mountain side, leading us to immediately question the logic of our decision. We eventually arrived in a rustic Spanish town clinging to a hillside above a raging river. We drove around the town for almost an hour but could not find any sign of a hotel so eventually turned back towards the highway to Cordoba. Fortunately, just outside the old town there was a busy truck-stop . Even more fortunate - they had a room.

Posted by paulymx 01:51 Comments (1)

Trucking around Spain

We hired a Citroen from Avis online but when we picked it up it had turned into a SEAT. Certainly the little Spanish car wasn’t as sexy as the French one; it was older and a diesel. Diesel is very common in Spain with at least two pumps on every petrol bowser, but for noise and performance, the diesel runs like a truck. Although the little SEAT is noisy it is very economical compared to the gasoline guzzling Opel we drove in Germany.
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It was 4.30pm before we finally set off from Barcelona and we really didn’t have a clear idea where we were going to go. We ended up heading towards Tarragona largely because it was an old Roman city and had ruins (so yes, that was my choice). It was a long slow drive up the coast past sad old and rundown beach resorts, largely because we had to stop and pay a toll every five hundred yards. One section of the highway between Barcelona and Zaragosa had a toll of 17 euro!! Tarragona and its Roman ruins proved to be a bit of a disappointment (the amphitheatre overlooking the beach was quite impressive but was under restoration) so we quickly moved on. We backtracked a little way up the motorway and headed for Zaragoza.
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Zaragoza was another old Roman city, its modern name a corruption of its original name, Caesar Augusta. There are a few scattered remnants of the Roman wall, a market place and an amphitheatre. Most of the Roman ruins however are buried some 70 feet beneath the new city (its amazing how much the surface level has risen in 2000 years) and can be visited on a tour, but we’d done that already in Barcelona so gave it miss. The landscape we drove through was dry and harsh; it seems hard to reconcile the condition of Spain today with that of the Roman era, when Iberian was one of the two most economically profitable provinces in the area (the other was the equally unlikely Libya!). Although Spain was the source of much of the Empire’s silver its most important export was cereal crops and olive oil, which thrived in Spain’s harsh, marginal environment. Spain was also far from the Empire’s borders and was therefore rarely invaded or disturbed by internal unrest and so required only a tiny garrison of between five and ten thousand soldiers and handful of administrators. This made Spain a very cheap province that always turned a significant profit (Libya was even more profitable, garrisoned as it was by only approximately a thousand soldiers). It also goes a long way to explaining how in the 5th century Spain was lost to a handful of Visigothic adventurers (and a later handful of Islamic adventurers).
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Zaragoza’s main draw card is its magnificent Basilica. The Basilica’s claim to fame is a statue of the Virgin Mary mounted on a fragment of the pillar on which Jesus was scourged. The statue draws pilgrims from all over Spain and the shops around the Basilica square are awash with religious trinkets (all very tasteful of course). We arrived in Zaragoza late, around 8.30pm and the sun had just set but the Basilica was a beacon of light that guided us to the old centre. With its four enormous bell towers it looks more like an Ottoman mosque than a traditional church and is unique in Spain (perhaps it’s the ghost of the Andalusian mosque whose foundations it shares?). After crossing a river into the old city we pulled into an underground carpark and left the car. We were a little startled however when we ascended the stairs to find ourselves in the main square at the foot of the Basilica. It was simply enormous and although the square itself is huge it was almost impossible to get the whole building into a photo.
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We found accommodation in a hostel just behind the main square. Maybe it was the beginning of the off season or perhaps because it was so late but the proprietor charged us half the advertised rate. Great success!! After a quick freshen up we set out to explore. The small old city is well kept, although not overly blessed with character. There were a few nice bars in the side streets and we ate at a restaurant popular with locals that specialised in what we would call ‘offal.’ Fortunately we had an English menu to hand to prevent us ordering something unpleasant!
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The next day we had churros and coffee for breakfast before setting off the visit the Basilica. As we anticipated, its internal beauty was in inverse proportion to its external magnificence. Sometimes big is not the best.

Having spent several days in Madrid three years ago we hadn’t intended a return visit on this trip but the drive from Zaragoza to our intended destination, Segovia, seemed to drag on and on. By 5pm we were still an hour from Madrid (and Segovia is an hour further north) so we decided to make Madrid our destination for the night. It was also Saturday and we counted on their being some interesting nightlife after the quiet of Zaragoza. We checked into a suitably dodgy pension, cleaned ourselves up and hit the town.
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Madrid is a huge city of some nine million people but the centre is charming and retains a small town feel. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy and we had a delicious meal of tapas that night. Afterwards we joined the MadRIDE bar crawl which was excellent - certainly the best since Riga. There were three Perth girls (actually from Albany but moving to Perth) and a guy from Adelaide who we may try and catch up with in Munich. We visited four bars, including the ubiquitous Irish bar that always seem to feature in these bar crawls, and finished up at salsa club. Although MadRIDE was well organised the night was not without its problems. Firstly, all the bars we visited were less that honest and employed sharp practices on their patrons, requiring intervention by the crawl organisers. They were the usual scams - overcharging, short changing, refusing to accept discount vouchers, denying all knowledge of organised bar crawls, and refusing to provide complimentary drinks. The MadRIDE guys were good and always sorted out the problem but it was still frustrating.
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Secondly, I was pick pocketed outside the Irish bar. Phil from Adelaide and I were outside waiting while the group assembled to move on when a dubious character walked passed us and feigned being spat at in the face by Phil. He made a bit of a song and dance about it but Phil just ignored him so he walked off and sat on a car bonnet across the street. A minute or so later he came over to me and asked where I was from. “Australia”, I answered. He reached out and shook my hand and said, “You play football in Australia?” “Yes.”, I said warily. “Yes yes!” he said and then imitated tackling a soccer ball past me, bouncing around beside me and kicking at my feet. I immediately tapped my wallet and it was gone. He tried to step away but I still gripped him in the handshake and refused to let him go. “You can give back my wallet.” I said with as much restrained menace as a dweeb like me can muster. He laughed as if to say ‘what wallet?’ but I refused to let him go. As I was beginning to cause a scene he handed the wallet back. It was open and he had been trying to pull the cash out one handed but hadn’t had time. He apologise - ingenuously - tapped me on the shoulder, wished me a good holiday and tried to lift my mobile phone from my breast pocket but I again grabbed him. There was no apology this time and as I called out that this man was a thief he ducked away down the alley and ran. Fernando, one of the organisers, ran after him. He later said that they know all the lowlifes around the city and they aren’t supposed to rob their clients. Of course this part of the problem - if they know who these guys are they should be telling their patrons to beware. It all seems part of the seedier side of doing business in Madrid’s downtown. Pick pocketing patrons is generally bad for business but the bars all tolerated it as long as the pick pockets only target patrons when they are leaving their premises. It’s a sad state of affairs. That said I was pleased to have outwitted the thief (obviously I wasn’t THAT drunk) but couldn’t really relax for the rest of the night.

We stumbled in from the crawl about 5am and snatched a couple of hours sleep before we had to check out at 10pm. After a quick coffee and pastry we hit the road to Segovia. Segovia is a famous old Castilian city about an hour from Madrid, although it seemed to take longer. Its main claim to fame is the magnificent Roman aqueduct that carries water from a distant spring to the old city; an essential service as as Segovia is situated in the midst of desolately dry landscape. It is extremely well preserved and towers above the lower city.
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We grabbed a spot of tapas in the lower town just below the aquaduct. It was a beautiful day; hot with endless blue skies above. But we found the going a little tough (I wonder why?). Coffee and Red Bull helped but not by much. We walked up into the upper town for sightseeing with little enthusiasm. The cathedral, one of the first gothic cathedrals in Spain, charged an entry fee to visit and we baulked at paying.
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We wandered on instead to the Alcazar; the old castle. Alcazar is the Spanish version of the Arabic word for castle and bears witness to the fact that for some three hundred years Segovia was an Islamic city. Although there are some minor traces of the original Arab castle in the lower parts of the wall, the Alcazar as it currently stands is largely a nineteenth century “orientalist” reconstruction.
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To best appreciate Segovia you need to leave the town for the hills across from the Alcazar. From that vantage point the sheer cliff top position and mighty walls of the city stand out in stark relief. Unfortunately we never found the view point and were a little too tired to drive around looking for it so decided to push on to Avila.
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Avila
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Avila is less than an hour from Segovia and has the best preserved circuit of medieval walls in Spain. The old city is rectangular in shape and the entire length of its grey granite walls and all 120 towers and bastions are intact. Some parts of the wall trace their origin right back to Roman times, which were then expanded and improved by the Moors. Not that you would be able to tell as Avila’s tourist brochures demonstrate a disturbing and deliberate historical amnesia. In trumpeting Avila’s UNESCO world heritage listing, Avila notes the contribution of the many peoples who have called Avila home - the Iberians, the Celts, the Romans, the Bretons (?), the Jews, the converted Moors. Excuse me? “Converted Moors?” What about THE Moors who were here for some three hundred years? One thousand years after the event and people still cannot tell the truth. History is of course written by people and people are rarely able to be objective or honest about things they find embarrassing or shameful; and countries often have histories that are embarrassing and shameful. So, because it’s going to come up a lot in our travels in Spain, let me fill in a couple of the historical blanks excised from the pages of Spanish ’nationalist’ history.

At the beginning of the eighth century Spain was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that the Romans had installed in southern France and Spain as their proxies during the fifth century. The Romans expected to be able to reimpose their authority after they’d dealt with problems closer to home but due to the collapse of the western Roman empire they never did. In For 250 years the Visigoths struggled to maintain any form of legitimate government in Spain. This was largely because they were xenophobic, viciously anti-Semitic and hated (and were hated by) their Hispanio-Roman citizens. Under their stewardship Spain rapidly plunged into economic decline and stagnation. In 711AD, King Roderic seized power after a vicious civil war that shattered all semblance of Visigoth unity, leading a group of dissatisfied Gothic and Roman nobles to invite an Arab and Berber army to cross the straights from Morocco into Spain. A Muslim army of no more than five thousand men under a general named Tariq landed beside the monolithic rock on the southern tip of the peninsula that still bares his name - the Jibr-al Tariq, corrupted into Gibraltar. Roderic managed to pull together an army of some ten thousand men which was all but annihilated in the ensuing battle. The Visigoth regime collapsed like house of cards and within three years the Muslims were in complete control of the Iberian peninsular and southern France. Over the next three hundred years they created in Spain, or Al-Andulus, a culture so outstanding that it remains a wonder of the world. Political collapse and infighting in the 12th century led to the Reconquista of the northern half of Spain by resurgent Christian kingdoms but Al-Andulus survived in the south until the Emirate of Granada was finally extinguished in 1492AD. The triumphant Spanish kings of Castile-Aragon and the Catholic Church then initiated one of Europe’s first genocides, exterminating all trace of Muslim and Jewish culture from Spainish shores (along with most of the Muslims and Jews into the bargain). The few remaining Moorish jewels in the southern Spain such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Mesquite in Cordoba are prized simply because they are the rarest of survivals. It would be fair to say that the triumph of the Reconquista was a victory of barbarism over enlightenment.
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Avila’s walls are magnificent and although there was a medieval gothic cathedral and a few other buildings there was little else to see in the city. We attempted to walk the walls in the morning but large stretches were under repair so we gave it a miss. We moved on to Toledo.

Posted by paulymx 13:16 Comments (1)

Shambles along the Ramblas

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Some cities occupy a special place in your heart and Barcelona is one of those cities for three very important reasons. Firstly, as soon as we arrived we did a full load of washing. After a month travelling out of a suitcase the feeling (and smell!) of properly cleaned clothes is truly magical (this is not to say that we’ve hadn’t washed before but it was certainly time for a proper wash). Secondly, we posted some surplus baggage home. Some of this stuff was souvenirs foolishly purchased without considering weight and packing implications, while the rest was Shelly’s ’surplus’ clothes. On day two of the trip Shelly made the ominous observation that she ‘may have bought too much stuff.’ Well, yes. So it was a blessing to bid adieu to 7 kilos of extra weight and free up some space in the bags for more shopping!! And thirdly, Barcelona is a fun and exciting city.
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We stayed at the excellent Hostel Downtown Paraiso in the middle of the Gothic Quarter, a twisting warren of medieval laneways that forms the heart of the old city. It was one block from The Ramblas, the great pedestrian avenue that sweeps up from the port to the centre of town. At every hour of the day there are hordes of people walking the Ramblas enjoying the various sights and entertainments going on there. Of course most of them are tourists and the others are the scum that feed off them - street mimes, living statues, spruikers, junk peddlers, pickpockets and beggars. I saw my first living statue on the Ramblas eleven years ago and was quite fascinated. Since then they’ve sprung up everywhere around the world. Some are good, some are bad, some are just plain bizarre. I often find them quite annoying but at least they are trying to do something entertaining in order to make a buck. Although I am usually very compassionate on many social issues, I cannot abide the beggars who flock around tourists. I particularly hate gypsies, who were ever present in southern Spain and extremely aggressive and in your face. They congregated around every church or monument (and let’s face it most monuments in Spain are churches) and thrust twigs of spruce or rosemary at you “for blessing, for blessing!” and demanding money. I know that the Romany gypsies are discriminated against and marginalised wherever they go but do they really want to be part of wider society or do they prefer living on the fringes? In eastern Europe there were lots of old women begging around railway stations and churches and I can certainly believe that life is tough for pensioners in eastern Europe, but the drunks exposing suppurating flesh wounds that were so putrid that you wanted to wretch, that’s too much. For God’s sake that’s no way to make a buck, get to a doctor before your leg drops off!!! Drugs, booze and mental illness - it’s pitiful the depths they plunge people.
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Although they can be annoying, I do feel sorry for the African guys selling the knock off bags, jewellery and other Chinese made junk. It’s not their fault that they’re selling useless junk, but at least their trying to make an honest buck and are generally polite. Okay, so I’ve had a bit of a rant. In Barcelona the beggars and swindlers were just an annoyance but in Madrid I was pick pocketed but caught him in the act. I didn’t lose anything but it did p*ss me off.
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So we walked the Ramblas a few times and took in the sights. We also visited the port, the Cathedral, went underground to see the remains of the Roman city, walked for miles to see the Arc de Triumph and exhibition park and did some shopping - Barcelona is a shoppers paradise. But our time in Barcelona was mostly spent tracking down the Gaudi sites. Antoni Gaudi is responsible for some of Barcelona’s most impressive Modernist architecture including the Batllo House, La Pedera, Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral, all of which we visited. Gaudi’s buildings give form to eccentricity. They are devoid of straight lines and seem almost organic. Walls curve and flow like water; doors and windows form odd, eccentric shapes. They are more sculptures than buildings. Gaudi exerted obsessive control over every aspect of his buildings, from the brickwork, carpentry, tiling and paint - which means he was crazy as a loon and must have been a nightmare to work with. He never worked from detailed plans; only high level sketches and sometimes a plaster model. At the magnificent Batllo house he stood in the street, yelling instructions up to the carpenters as they worked on each element of the façade. In 1926 while supervising work on his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, he stepped backwards into the street and was killed by a bus. By that stage only the crypt, one apse and one tower had been completed. It was a controversial project - Gaudi was rumoured to have used animal and human bones and even the plaster cast of a foetus in the decoration of the façade - and for many years it stood abandoned. Eventually it was decided to complete the construction, which is expected to be finished now in 2020. Gaudi however left no plans and only a few sketches of the completed project, all of them different, so the new builders are having to ‘interpret’ his intention. Personally I’m not a fan of the result. As bizarre as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is, he clearly intended it to be part of the grotto tradition, albeit on a gigantic scale. The new construction looks like a Disney version of Gaudi, copying many of the features of his other buildings and seems to miss the point.
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We also went on another bar crawl in Barcelona. It seemed that each crawl was getting later and later. Berlin’s started at 9pm, Riga’s at 11pm, but Barcelona’s didn’t start till 12am and even then the guide was half an hour late. There were some raucous Aussies from Melbourne, two quiet Germans and three French Canadians, who spoke surprisingly bad English. The crawl started well. The first two bars were good, although at the second bar - an Irish bar of course - there was a group of guys out on a buck’s do who were demonstrating some unorthodox uses for a bottle of Estrella (beer). The second two bars and the ‘club’ though were awful and cheap and no one enjoyed them. As far as organised pub crawls went this one wasn’t so great and the organisers were just going through the motions.
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That said, we did have an okay time and the next day our Gaudi crawl had to be cut short at Park Guell as we were feeling just a little too nonplussed to be walking around in the hot sun. Or was it just the crush of tourists trying to photograph the iguana??
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After three fun filled days in Barcelona we packed up our bags - now 7 kilos lighter - and went to the airport to pick up our hire car. It was time to get back on the road.

The Gaudi Buildings
La Pedera
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Batllo Building
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Park Guell
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Posted by paulymx 15:28 Comments (3)

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