Tag Archives: Spain

Madrid: the Royal Palace and an Egyptian surprise

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

January 7, 2019

We had just one day remaining to us in Spain, closing with an overnight flight to Johannesburg. We stowed our baggage at “Lock and Be Free” on Calle de Toledo in the morning chill. We then hoped to find a shop that could serve a gluten-free breakfast. I am afraid we wandered quite a long time. At last we seated ourselves at a diner. The young staff read Natasha’s celiac disease card (in Spanish), and they looked perplexedly at its detailed descriptions. At length they settled on eggs and potatoes, with coffee for her and tea for me. Life was wonderful once more!

Madrid Town Centre

A panorama of Plaza de la Villa

We had soon wandered into Plaza de la Villa, a medieval square that features some very lovely architecture. On our Monday morning, however, all the surrounding buildings seemed closed for business. It’s a shame, since it appears the Casa de Cisneros offers some Mudejar design elements (yes, even this far north!).

We had hoped to visit the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community of Madrid, next door. When we arrived, however, all entrances to the building were closed. I think it would have been an interesting visit, since I don’t know much about the Jewish community’s efforts to re-establish itself in Spain after founding a synagogue at Madrid in 1917.

The Cathedral Church of the Armed Forces has been adorned by an anarchy symbol!

We had a couple of opportunities to see the Cathedral Church of the Armed Forces, and both times we stopped to gaze. I wonder what it is about the facade that makes it seem so prototypically Spanish?

The seat of the archbishop is beautiful!

Of course, just a few more steps west brought us to Catedral de la Almudena, the seat of the Archbishop of Madrid. I was interested to learn that this church only began construction in 1879. The mosque that once stood on this site, however was demolished in 1083, the year when Alfonso VI reconquered Madrid in the aftermath of the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Again, it would have been nice to see the museum there, but now we were quite close to our main destination for the day!

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace at Madrid was built during 1738-1751. The first king to occupy the palace was Carlos III.

One of the first exhibits we visited was Cartas al Rey, a temporary exhibition about Spain’s role in World War I. Of course, Spain was neutral, so one might mistakenly think it was doing nothing. The exhibit showed that the nation played a key role in communications among the belligerent powers. A great many of the exhibits, however, were more personal in nature; individuals throughout the world wrote to Spain to request help in locating prisoners of war and determining whether loved ones were alive or dead. It was touching.

Of course, a majestic entrance hall is a requirement!

From there, we passed into the castle proper. The grand staircase and mural ceilings of entrance hall were truly lovely. The passage then led in a circuit of the second floor. Bronze statues of Greek gods standing in muster room had been re-homed from the Seville Alcazar. In another room, I loved a massive clock and aimed my camera. Immediately, a guard was there with “No Photos.” Another room featured the current royal family portrait. It seemed almost photographic, though it had taken a decade to produce!

At least it’s not gold lamé, am I right?

The rooms grew progressively more grand. I particularly loved the porcelain room. When we reached the grand dining room, I joked that the mirror at the end was entirely unnecessary to create a deeper look to the room. Natasha whispered back, “There’s no mirror,” and of course she was right! The silver and gilt place settings over the centuries were beautiful, though of more interest to my companion. We came out of the suites to courtyard balcony, and I felt a sense of relief at being in a more open space. I saw a pair of stone renderings of a royal duo at a distance. Natasha was sure it was the Catholic Monarchs at a glance. From there we entered the royal chapel. How beautiful! I felt that while the throne room was enormous, with lovely frescoes on the ceiling, the thrones themselves seemed less impressive.

It’s good to be the king.

Once we returned to the parade facing the cathedral, we enjoyed a view of the gardens, woods, and distant suburbs from the overlook of the palace.

Egyptian Temple, Peruvian food, and an English Court

We continued to a park north of the palace, where Natasha was delighted to see a skein of ice covering a shallow pool. She was discouraged to see young people throwing pebbles to try breaking the ice.

Temple of Debod at Madrid

We continued to another park, where we ascended a long flight of stairs (murderous on Natasha’s ankle) to the top of a high platform. Even thought we knew what we would find, it was still a bit of a shock. Two centuries before Jesus, Egyptians constructed a temple to Amun and Isis. Subsequent generations expanded the temple with additional rooms. The Temple of Debod was eventually completed by Romans. When modern Egypt built the Aswan Dam, however, the temple would have been inundated, so the nation gifted the structure to Spain. It was rebuilt in 1972, the year of my brother’s birth! As we circumnavigated the temple, Natasha tried to discern which blocks were original and which represented replacements. She was excited to see a cartouche at its back. Madrid has struggled to keep this site secured, though, and that’s probably why we couldn’t see the inside.

From there we took a very long walk. We passed the Conde Duque Cultural Centre. We had walked for quite a while when we were surprised to encounter Leon the Baker, a chain of shops that are entirely gluten-free. We acquired three muffins and a chocolate chip cookie for me to keep my spirits high. We pushed up to the marketplace that contained a gluten-free restaurant, but the marketplace was closed, sadly. We back-tracked to a Peruvian restaurant for a lovely though expensive farewell meal. I had a cream sauce chicken with fruity, peppery overtones.

From there, we paused to visit the El Corte Ingles, a large shopping store, for some last-minute purchases, and then we descended to the subway for a run down to the luggage locker place. We had a lovely chat with the attendant, and then we strapped ourselves to the bags. With my heavier roller bag and Natasha’s large hiking backpack strapped to me, I was really struggling to make forward progress. Just the same, we managed to make our way down to Tirso de Molina and descend to the trains. Two exchanges later, we were on the subway spur to the airport, taking it all the way to the end for the international terminal. We paid the extra fee for air travelers, and we were on our way to the check-in desk.

Our honeymoon had finally come to an end, but Natasha and I are both over the moon to spend our lives together!

Madrid: Prado in a hurry!

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

January 6, 2019

Who knew January 6th was a holiday? Apparently Spain, a Catholic country, has strong feelings about the arrival of the Three Magi. Given that the city came to a standstill, Natasha and I were very lucky that the Prado museum was open from 10-2, albeit at full price!

We saw a lovely fountain of Neptune and knew we had come to the right place. Natasha’s long-ago training in art history prepared her somewhat better for the onslaught of religious, historical, and mythological creations we were soon to behold. It couldn’t hurt that she once binge-watched “Fake or Fortune.”

This photo comes from Astral Traveller. The building was under renovation on our visit.

I prepared myself by flipping open the museum guide brochure to the full-page grid of thumbnails showing the most widely-sought masterpieces on offer. I drew mental circles around pieces by Bosch, Durer, and Titian. Natasha added a host of others, including Raphael, Caravaggio, El Greco, Rubens, and finally Goya. We were ready to play Museum Bingo! Of 54 listed masterpieces, we eventually visited 30, frequently moving at “trot.”

Art images have been downscaled from bitmaps made available through the Prado website.

I was interested in seeing artist portrayals of the historical figures we met in our tour of Al-Andalus. “Queen Isabella the Catholic dictating her will” naturally emphasized the queen, with the assembled nobles nearly sketched in comparison to her finely-detailed face. Her son-in-law Philip the Fair fared worse, since medieval artists liked the drama of portraying the grief of his wife Joanna the Mad at his death!

Carlos V befriended Titian, and a heroic image emerged!

Charles V has shown up many times across our last three weeks, usually in the context of “and Charles V destroyed this priceless Muslim architecture…” His friendship with the artist Titian, however, produced some lovely visuals, such as his rendering of the monarch as a knight for Christ.

This sixteenth century bronze by Leone Leoni put Charles V in a mythological context.

The statue of Charles V destroying a fury has the remarkable property that his clothes may be unscrewed from the nude statue underneath!

This adoration by the shepherds may be the last of El Greco’s creations.

Natasha had a lot to say about El Greco, an artist I only knew by name. Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in Greece in 1541 and moved to Toledo at age 36. I am a big fan of Impressionism, and in many ways, El Greco’s style prefigures that movement. I loved the evocative images on display.

Bosch could see a different world by closing his eyes!

For me, the opportunity to see “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch was the highlight of my day. The work is an amazing fantasy, and the room was perpetually crowded. I waited my turn to get a closer look and knelt down to gaze. The creativity and caprice that Bosch allowed himself must have been quite the shock to his contemporaries.

Goya knew who he considered the heroes.

Natasha and I were one room away from the display of “The Executions” by Goya when the guards began turning everyone back to the exits. I did not really know the story behind the painting. In my discussion of Alhambra I mentioned that the French army occupied Spain during the Napoleonic era. The second of May uprising represented a dramatic turn when the Spanish demonstrated that they no longer perceived the French troops as allies. The executions represent the French response on the following day.

The afternoon sun felt awfully nice as we emerged from the museum. We paused on a concrete bench, and I began scribbling notes for this post in my little green notebook. Natasha surprised me by recording a short video!

Granada: Multifaceted Alhambra

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

January 4, 2019

The “Red Fort” atop Sabika Hill has spawned more stories per square foot than almost any other place I could imagine. Was it a mansion constructed by an ambitious Jewish vizier? Was it an outpost of “Oriental” civilization, filled with chivalry and fright? Is it a concrete expression of complex geometries? Was it all intended as a sumptuous playground for the sultan? Alhambra may have elements from all of these stories in its multilayered history.

Dave botches something important in honeymoon planning.

Our last day in Granada promised to take us inside Europe’s most touristed attraction, Alhambra! We had been advised to buy our tickets long in advance, and yet I had found it difficult even to determine which site was the “official” place to buy tickets. Then we had to pin down which days we would be in which city. Then we needed to pin down what type of pass we wanted, given that different tickets corresponded to different parts of the massive site. Amidst all these ambiguities, we never acquired the tickets until our trip had begun. When we looked at the website after arriving at Seville, the 14 euro tickets had no availability for a couple before January 10th, and the last singleton vanished from sight before our eyes.

This map of the Alhambra complex, from D. Fairchild Ruggles, will be helpful.

We discovered an uncomfortable phenomenon. Tour guides are buying such large blocs of tickets that individuals cannot acquire them. We bit the bullet and booked two “seats” in a Low Cost Tours Europe visit to Alhambra for January 4th. For the privilege, we paid 50 euros each. With the purchase complete, we discovered that the tour was to be conducted in Spanish. Neither Natasha nor I speak the language.

The Arab Fort or Alcazaba has the oldest “bones” in Alhambra.

How did Alhambra come to exist in the first place?

Antonio Fernández-Puertas made a useful resource to understand how this fortress-palace-city evolved when he detailed the lives of three Nasrid sultans who ruled between 1314 and 1391. I introduced Yusuf I and Mohammed V in the preceding post. Ismail I was the father of Yusuf I and thus the grandfather of Mohammed V. To read the lives of these three sultans is to become witness to a Game of Thrones-style bloodbath. Ismail I ruled Granada during the time of the last significant victory by the Moors against the Christian kingdoms, the Battle of Vega in 1319. I could easily imagine a movie structured around the dramatic 1359 coup against Muhammad V in which a hundred conspirators scaled the Alhambra walls to murder vizier Ridwan in his bed and narrowly miss the capture of the sultan!

This map, also from Ruggles, diagrams the “famous part” of Alhambra.

To return to the history of Alhambra, though, I would try to assemble a small timeline:

  • 1013-1090: During the Zirid dynasty, Jewish vizier Yusuf ibn Naghrila builds the first residence next to the Alcazaba (fortress) atop Sabika Hill.
  • 1314-1325: Reign of Ismail I, who creates the Alcazar del Genil after his victory in battle. He remodeled the summer palace (Generalife) and constructed the Puerta de la Armas. He began a new palace complex where Palacio de Comares would stand and constructed a cistern where Palacio del Riyad (later called Palace of the Lions) would stand.
  • 1333–1354: Reign of Yusuf I, who constructed the 45m Torre de Comares , which houses the Salón de los Embajadores (considered by many to be the masterpiece of Nasrid architecture). He also built the Gate of the Esplanade and the Torre del Cadi and Torre Quebrada.
  • 1362-1391: Second reign of Muhammad V, who began by rebuilding the Mexuar, the public area of the palace. His reign saw considerable creative design, including the Puerta el Vino, the Sala de la Barca, as well as the patio and facade of the Palacio de Comares. Later in his reign, he initiated the Palacio del Riyad (called the Palace of Lions by the Christians after Reconquista) and created the Palacio de los Alijares (later leveled).
  • 1492: The city of Granada surrenders to the forces of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.
  • 1525: Carlos V (Holy Roman Emperor) decides to construct a Renaissance Palace and several residential rooms next to the Nasrid Palaces.
  • 1533-1637: The Carlos V Palace is under construction for a century without completion.
  • 1581-1618: St. Mary Church is constructed on the site of Alhambra’s Great Mosque.
  • 1810-1812: The French Army occupies Alhambra, building their fortifications on and around the medieval fortress. Eastern walls were demolished as the troops departed.
  • 1923-1928: Leopoldo Torres Balbas implements a plan to finalize the Carlos V Palace.
Behind the fortifications of Alcazaba, there’s not much to see. These are barracks wall footings, capped in concrete.

I have mentioned quite a lot of Muslim architecture from Al-Andalus, so it might help to put them in context. The Caliph of Cordoba set a distinctly Andalusian design to the architecture he introduced in Madinat al-Zahra (begun 936-940 A.D.). The Nasrid rulers of Granada echoed that design aesthetic in construction of their palaces (1314-1391). Muhammad V may have transmitted these possibilities to Pedro I during his time in Seville, and Pedro I (who reigned 1350-1369) certainly incorporated a lot of Andalusian ideas in the “mudejar” style of his palace at Sevilla.

From Alhambra’s viewing platforms, you have an unrivaled view of Granada. At the upper left is the cathedral, and centered at the bottom you can see the Royal Chancery.

How well do English speakers fare on a Spanish tour?

We spent our morning shopping for gifts, and then we enjoyed a happy lunch at an authentic Mexican restaurant close to our lodgings. From there we popped over to Plaza Nueva, and then we started the slog up the hill to Alhambra. In brief, it is a heavy slope, especially at first. Natasha paused at a ceramics shop to acquire some pretty Christmas tree ornaments. Soon thereafter, we passed through an archway into a pretty greenbelt. The sunlight was dappled from its passage through the trees. It was thoroughly lovely.

Even though it was never finished and is a totally different style than its neighbors, Carlos V looks lovely as sunset approaches.

Our guidebook suggested that the main entrance was at the Puerta Vino, but it seems to have moved to a spot further east, where the hilltop divides into the Alhambra to the west and Generalife to the east. We met with our guide and group, and we received our tickets to the sites within the complex. I tried the earpiece for the first part of the tour, but I picked up few words, and they were all out of context. The guide did not attempt to keep his English-speaking pair apprised of what was going on or what we were seeing. His first comment to us, in fact, was to specify that we were on a bathroom break.

I believe this capital was from the mexuar, the public areas of the Nasrid Palaces.
The tile work was outstanding throughout. I believe this was also from the mexuar.

We had another problem, too. Natasha’s Christmas ankle sprain was aggravated by the uneven footing of the site, and the guide seemed to be accelerating as the day went by! My own legs were not feeling great from the treatment. Before we entered the Nasrid Palaces, Natasha and I handed back the audio equipment in case we were left behind. We did part ways with the group just as they jetted off to the summer palace and Generalife. The tour guide did not seem sad we split.

Looking south in Court of the Myrtles
Looking north in the Court of the Myrtles. This tower is Yusuf I’s creation.

My experience of the pinnacle

So how about that Alhambra? Let me start by saying it is not all one thing. The bit that everyone raves about is the Nasrid Palaces, and as I’ll share below, it’s truly glorious. The Arab Fort, on the other hand, is the oldest, most ruinous part. I don’t think I understand its history at all. The Renaissance palace of Carlos V is in nice condition, but then it is only half the age of the oldest parts. Other areas include the massive gardens and summer palace in the Generalife. One should not leave out the Medina; at some points, 40,000 citizens have called this town home.

The astonishing ceiling of the Hall of the Abencerrajes
Everyone realizes when they have reached the Patio of Lions.

Our tour guide assaulted the Arab Fort at Caesar-speed. We entered through a cavalry ramp and we passed by cement-capped wall footings of soldier barracks with barely the time to snap a photo. Our guide lingered for a moment atop a viewing deck that afforded a fantastic view of the city below. I would have enjoyed a few moments with my zoom lens, but i was just starting to realize the extent of Natasha’s ankle damage, and I had no clues from the guide’s monologue whether or not I would have time to switch lenses. In moments, he pulled us from the platform, back through the ruins to the other side, where he pointed to the snowy mountains in the distance and talked about the climate and North Africa, which is really not so very far away. Gibraltar is only 113 miles from Granada, as the crow flies.

Layers upon layers of decoration
The Tower of the Ladies comes with its own reflecting pool.

Our look at the Carlos V palace was very brief, taking us into the central atrium, ringed by Romanesque columns. Natasha and I returned to the building later to visit its Alhambra museum, and I am very glad we did. We got the chance to see beautifully-carved rafters that had been pulled from the earliest parts of Arabic Alcazar at Cordoba (not Alcazar of the Christian Kings). A gorgeous marble basin that had been plundered from the Madinat Al-Zahra by Berbers was there, too, showing the caliph as a mighty lion devouring prey. They even featured a yamur (top spire) of the Mezquita at Almonzara that had been appropriated by Christians to stand atop Iglesia Santa Ana (on Plaza Nueva in Granada). If we had stayed with out tour group, we would never have seen these artifacts. As matters stood, we did not have much time in the museum since its winter hours end at 6 P.M. We entirely missed our chance to see the Fine Arts Museum in the same building, and no photos were allowed in the Alhambra museum.

This Summer Palace is entirely unlike the one in Beijing!
These wall footings of the medina would once have been next door to the mosque. St. Mary’s put an end to that.

Naturally, Natasha and I have seen quite a lot of Mudejar and Andalusian interior decorating in our visits to Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. I would particularly point to the Mezquita at Cordoba, the Alcazar at Seville (though created for a Christian king), and the Nasrid Palace at Granada. The last two of these sites have the most in common, but Alhambra’s Nasrid Palace is on a grander scale and in better condition than Seville’s Alcazar. The vivid patios and powerful ceremonial spaces of the Alhambra Nasrid Palaces speak to an artistic sensibility that hangs together through this part of the complex. All too soon, however, our tour moved into the royal living spaces, and they no longer bear walls of carved plaster, painted wood, or amazing crenelated ceilings. The tour takes one through many elegant and even astonishing chambers, but only a small part of the Sabika hilltop is the mind-blowing beauty that we associate with the name “Alhambra.”

[Postscript: Are you interested in the gardens of Alhambra? I suggest you read this retrospective from a 40-year veteran of the gardens!]

Granada: Encountering the Muslim past

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

In Granada, you are likely to hear two names in connection with the buildings from the Emirate: Yusuf I and Muhammad V. These two sultans consecutively ruled Granada from 1333 to 1391, except for a three-year period when civil conflict caused Muhammad V to take refuge at the Seville Alcazar and with the Marinid court in Fez, Morocco. Yusuf I became sultan when his brother was murdered, and Muhammad V became sultan when his father Yusuf I was murdered while at prayers in 1354. As you can see, ruling the Emirate of Granada was not for the faint-hearted!

The Madraza of Granada

[Visited on December 31, 2018]

Can you imagine defending your Ph.D. dissertation under a ceiling like this? It’s a possibility if you defend at the University of Granada!

One of the first places that Natasha and I visited in Granada was the Madraza, a higher learning institution founded by Sultan Yusuf I in 1349. As is commonly the case, the Madraza was associated with a mosque, in this case the main mosque of medieval Granada, previously located just across the street. When Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista by taking Granada in 1492, these institutions were the first to be affected. The Madraza became the town hall (and the neighboring mosque was destroyed to make room for the Catholic cathedral). Sumptuous carved wooden doors with paintings of Christian saints were installed at the Madraza, and an upstairs hall was recreated in fine Mudejar style for the “XXIV Knights Hall.” The ceiling is outrageous, with support beams and ornamentation in a riot of colors.

Not a square inch was left unadorned in this astonishing prayer hall for the Madraza.

Happily, the original prayer hall of the Madraza was boarded off during the early remodeling of the building, and a restoration in the 19th century has helped to highlight its original glory. The ceiling and walls of the prayer hall are simply magnificent, just as fine a room as one would expect to see in Seville’s Alcazar, with the added benefit that there are no crowds standing in line to see them. We lingered longer than strictly necessary to breathe in the beauty around us.

Those tiles at the bottom will be echoed in a subsequent post…

The Corral del Carbon

[The rest of this post stems from our visits on January 3, 2019.]

Our day started with a run to the Market at San Agustin and some souvenir shopping near the main cathedral in town.

The cathedral facade is so large compared to the plaza that it’s quite hard to photograph.

As we migrated through a maze of shopping stalls (finishing with some glorious embroidered silk scarves), our first destination hove into view. We were back to see the Monumentos Andalusies, and this time we were armed with tickets we had bought online!

The facade for Corral de Carbon is its loveliest external feature, but don’t miss its museum.

The Corral del Carbon was originally called “al-funduq al-jadida,” constructed by Muhammad V in the 14th century as a warehouse where travelling merchants could find accommodations for themselves and their wares. After the Reconquista, charcoal merchants used it as a sales floor, contributing its Spanish name. The structure has a magnificent entry, though its triple-decker internal structure has few original elements remaining.

I could imagine each of those doors opening to a tech start-up. This building has flexed with the times, even serving as a theatre!

In the ground-floor corner one can enter a small museum dedicated to explaining the Muslim conquest of the peninsula and the eventual dissolution and defeat of the kingdoms of Al-Andalus. It’s very well done, with a handy timeline, and it features many period paintings and woodcuts of Granada. I appreciated that the Mezquita Mayor (main mosque) was illustrated and located with respect to the main cathedral and royal chapel in Granada. The museum currently features a short film in which Granada is illustrated through text that medieval travelers and diplomats recorded about the city. I wrote in my Albaicin post that Casa de Zafra would be an ideal first stop in your Albaicin tour, but the Corral del Carbon is perhaps even better!

The Baths at Carrera del Darro

Looking down at the baths from Alhambra, we can see the mounded roof among the Renaissance buildings surrounding it.

In contrast to Carral del Carbon, En Bañuelo is in a structure that shows far more original elements; the renovations have largely tried to return the pieces to their original locations. The annotation and interpretation, however, are at a minimum. The ceramic segmented plumbing pipes are unlabeled, as the hot, tepid, and cold areas. Even a poster explaining when Muslims were required to be ritually clean would have been helpful. An arrow pointing to several stacks of bricks on the sub-floor, reading “hypocaust” would be nice, for that matter! As matters currently stand, visitors mostly say, “ooh, pretty arches!” and “ooh, star-shaped holes for daylight!” The 2014 article I linked at the top of the paragraph produced a three-dimensional photographic model of the entire complex. Archnet has several lovely photos from this site, and they note it dates from the 11th century, from the Zirid dynasty’s control of the city which ended in 1090 A.D.

I loved the daylight peeking through the ceiling of the largest chamber.

House of the Golden Oven

Come for the tracery and tile, stay for the woodwork.

Our return to Casa Horno de Oro with our Internet-acquired tickets ran much more smoothly. The structure follows a familiar design; it is a patio surrounded by a two-story structure. It was in a lovely state of preservation, though, and the carved arches and painted wooden ceilings were stunning. I found it difficult to acquire much history on the structure, but it appears to be a “Morisco” (Muslim who accepted conversion to Christianity) house for a wealthy family from the late 15th century.

Even if this is a restoration rather than an original, it’s gorgeous.

As we saw at Corral del Carbon, the site featured an exhibit, though not one that related to the history of the house. Three rooms had been hung with art photography from the Albaicin and Alhambra. They were nice additions. Natasha enjoyed three images taken through an horseshoe arch door of a busker interacting with tourists. It was a nice exhibition. I still want to know, though, where is the golden oven?

Basking in the sun, I decided it must be the golden oven.

From there, Natasha and I left in search of lunch. We trudged “over the hump” of the Albaicin, reaching the high ground of Mirador San Nicolas once more. We found a lovely Moroccan restaurant (Restaurante Teteria Marrakech) that could field gluten-free food. I took the easy route with lamb kebab and rice. We emerged to snap some photos from this famous overlook!

It’s a huge arc, so I snapped thirteen images to make this one. Can you spot my error in the snowline?

The Mother of the Sultan

If your son were the sultan, don’t you think you would want an observation tower on your home?

We had just one more site to visit from the World Heritage roster. The Palacio Dar al-Horra was constructed for Aixa, wife of Sultan Muhammad XI and mother of “Boabdil,” the last Sultan of Granada. It was a glorious home, and much of the decor was in good shape. The palace, already poised on very high ground, unusually features an observation tower. The view from up there was fantastic! I was wowed by Iglesia de San Cristobal, perched right at the top of an adjoining ridge. I also spent some time looking down at the old royal hospital, set in a square subdivided in both dimensions by a cross-hall.

The Royal Hospital (foreground) and the Plaza de Toros (background) were two sites we did not reach during our visit.

The palace followed the model of the Corral del Carbon and Casa Horno de Oro by hosting a quality exhibition. Their focus was the advanced technology of Al-Andalus (especially in comparison to other European kingdoms of the time). The displays showed advances in Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine, and Agriculture. Certainly the Muslim’s ability to handle arid climates came in handy. Their insights at water management introduced many new terms to Spanish, and a new growing season became possible, along with the ability to skip fallow periods for fields because the Moors brought new crops to the peninsula.

The Palace offers its own magnificent view of Alhambra!

We gazed down at Granada from our high perch. Natasha pointed below us to the medieval wall for the Albaicin. We had tried to find a good view of it only to realize we had been walking alongside it. I discovered a cat sleeping in the garden and tried to encourage him to come play. We sighed with contentment.

Granada: Albaicin, Archaeology, and Astrolabes

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

January 2, 2019

We dedicated today to the exploration of the Albaicin, a residential area that has been continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years. Medieval Muslim communities frequently followed the pattern of palace or fortress (alcazar), city center (medina), and residential area (in this case, the Albaicin).

Going up!

Most cars would not prepared to drive our street.

Our lodgings fell just inside the Elvira Gate, a massive 11th century structure that was once part of the medieval wall. Our journey took us east on our street, which in our case also meant upwards! Our street rose in altitude so quickly that it mostly consists of cobblestone steps. We were both huffing and puffing, much as I had experienced in Lesotho or Heidelberg. We zigged and zagged on some roads at the top, and we were rewarded with a stunning view of the city below us.

The Albaicin is well above the main tourist districts.

Unfortunately, we met with disappointment at the first site, Palacio Dar al-Horra, and others we had planned. Four sites were jointly managed as the “Monuments Andalusies” for World Heritage. The four sites use particular machines to distribute tickets, and the machines refused to execute purchases on my credit card or on Natasha’s. At a stroke, the premier sites for our tour of the Albaicin were eliminated from our day’s schedule.

It’s an iconic shot, but it’s the wrong time of day!

We pressed on to our second site. Helpfully, Mirador San Nicolas never closes! It’s a plaza offering a brilliant view of Alhambra, sprawling across the next ridge. I had seen suggestions to visit it at sundown, and I soon understood why; just before noon, the sun appears low in the sky above the palace (our visit was near the winter solstice), adding considerable glare. I tried my best to capture some images of Alhambra anyway.

If you are fascinated by medieval waterworks, don’t miss this aljibe, a cistern created during the Nasrid emirate!

Courtyards and balconies

This courtyard has lost two walls over the centuries.

Casa del Chapiz was a very nice spot to visit, albeit being positioned at the extreme eastern edge of Albaicin. This pair of homes, built in the early sixteenth century by Muslims who had converted to Christianity (they were not given much choice in the matter), features a lovely pair of restored Moorish patios. The wood work was splendid, and Natasha and I were further hooked on the idea of a home that encloses an open-air patio. Behind the home, though, is a massive formal garden, much longer than it was wide. Its views back toward Alhambra were pretty stunning, and Natasha was delighted to see a persimmon tree, though its fruit was out of reach!

If the garden is this green in mid-winter, what does it look like in spring?

We had heard bells ringing over at Alhambra for some time before we realized that the noise was not going to stop. We suspected that tour guides were making a bell rope accessible to a never-ending queue of children. Three rings, pause. Three rings, pause. This figure overlaid our next several hours.

We tried to visit Casa Horno del Oro, but the ticket machines for the World Heritage quartet continued to pose a barrier. I felt discouraged. Our path, though, became simpler. Instead of climbing and descending cobblestone “stair streets,” our path descended to Carrera del Darro. This beautiful street runs along the bank of the Darro River for its remaining uncovered stretch. I was less happy about the uptick in tourists around us.

A tidy starter museum

The Castril Palace (1539), home to the secretary of the Catholic Monarchs, how houses the Museum of Archaeology.

I had hoped the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography would measure up to the ones we had enjoyed at Cordoba and Madrid, but its three chambers held relatively few exhibits. We liked some of the Iberian and Roman pieces, but our attention was more captured by the astrolabes we saw there. We were surprised to read that we were seeing one of only nine medieval astrolabes remaining in the world that was inscribed in Arabic. Astrolabes represented one of the key technologies that differentiated the “Golden Age” of Islam from the “Dark Ages” of Christian Europe.

An Arabic astrolabe from 1481.

The climb to the second floor was rather nice, though. The stairs had lovely embedded tiles. How old might they be? Natasha and I gingerly stepped upward, trying to rest our feet only on terracotta. At the same time, a teenager careened down the steps at high speed. We sighed. The Renaissance structure of the museum is lovely, as befits the building’s origins under Ferdinand and Isabella.

The late 14th century House of Zafra followed the familiar courtyard theme

Our walk to the Casa de Zafra took almost no time. In many ways, this would have been the ideal first stop on our tour of the Albaicin. The little museum walks visitors through the different phases of occupation for this area. I liked a map showing different color regions relating to the different waves of population in the Albaicin over the centuries (see below). Natasha loved a timeline that contextualized the major historical events in the Iberian Peninsula against events in the world at large, such as the construction of the Leshan Buddha (begun in 713 A.D., nearly the same time as the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula), the completion of the Forbidden City (1420 A.D., a bit before the assault on Granada), or the discovery of America (Columbus sailed the same year Granada fell)!

Natasha and I were ready for some refreshment, so we paused at the Teteria del Banuelo. We pulled up a table on the open-air patio with an outstanding view of Alhambra (three rings, pause, three rings, pause). Natasha enjoyed a Jordanian tea (black tea with mint), and I selected an Albaicin specialty pairing green tea with orange peel and blossoms. Yum!

Palace of the Forgotten

Our last target for the day was El Palacio de los Olvidados. At first, I was glad to see from the guide book that the Jewish community of Granada had its own museum, even if the Sephardi population had concentrated to the southeast of Alhambra rather than the west! As we entered the museum, however, we realized that the museum was tiptoeing down the line of sensationalism, with the most comprehensive collection of torture and execution devices that I have ever seen (purportedly because they had been used by the Spanish Inquisition against the Jewish / Converso population). The second floor of the museum had a pretty great collection of Jewish artifacts (such as a 15th century Torah and cover and a 16th century bridal chest).

It is hard to believe this Torah cover was likely embroidered around the time of Columbus. The Jews were expelled from Spain soon thereafter.

I was really happy to see a Hebrew astrolabe that echoed the Arabic one we had seen earlier in the archaeology museum. Unfortunately, we had to wade through an awful lot of metal and wooden devices for contorting the human body, along with woodcuts depicting their use.

Hey, Astrolabe. What’s your sign?

There were, however, some useful facts about the Inquisition within the displays. The Jewish Interpretation Center in Seville alluded to a conspiracy among six prominent Jews in 1481 that led to widened operations against the Converso / Jewish population. That story was amplified at Granada, revealing that the discovered conspiracy had been used to motivate Inquisition proceedings at Cordoba, Jaen, and Ciudad Real over the next two years. The museum also offered useful information on the process under which the auto da fe (“declaration of faith”) ceremonies took place. Just the order of arrival would take a while to execute. Apparently these ceremonies announcing verdicts from the Inquisition were frequently all-day affairs! The other detail I appreciated was a series of statistics describing how many people were victimized by the Inquisition in each king or queen’s reign from 1481-1808.

Catholic Monarchs
Carlos V
Felipe II
Felipe III
Felipe IV
Carlos II
Felipe V
Fernando VII
Carlos III
Carlos IV
This statue of Judah ibn Tibbon, sometimes called “The Moor Hailing a Taxi,” remembers a man famed for his translations from Arabic to Hebrew.

We stepped into the afternoon light, glad to clear our lungs of such human suffering. We lingered for a bit in Plaza Nueva. It was a very busy place, with hawkers and street performers everywhere and Santa Ana church standing over it. The vitality of the plaza helped us to see Granada in the glory of today rather than brooding over horrors from its past.

At last the sun was in the right place!

Granada: Ferdinand and Isabella reshape the medieval city

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 31, 2018

Now in Granada, Natasha and I strolled down the Gran Via de Colon, a thoroughfare carved during the first decade of the 20th century through buildings that had lingered since the medieval era. When automobiles came of age, most ancient cities struggled with their warrens of narrow cart-paths. Progress, in this case, came with its own crises, as fourteen city councilors in the opposition were placed under arrest. After a total work stoppage and recession resulted, these charges were dismissed. Historians and archaeologists lost this battle against modernization in Granada, but the city is far easier to traverse because it created this boulevard. The narrow Calle Elvira near our lodgings in the city was originally its “main drag,” but the Gran Via running parallel to it has taken pride of place. This struggle between the past and the future has played out several times through the history of Granada, as I will detail below.

The 11th century Elvira Gate was a key point of customs control for medieval Granada.

Royal Chapel: final resting place of the Catholic Monarchs

Our next steps led us to the queue for the Capilla Real, the final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella. The queen was originally buried in Alhambra, but Ferdinand devoted effort in his final years to creating this royal chapel at the cathedral. Not only are he and Isabella interred there, but also their daughter Joana (“the Mad”) and her husband Philip (“the Handsome”) found their rest at this chapel. The tours of this structure disallow photos, so I will try to “use my words” instead.

The Market Hall exterior at Capilla Real

Natasha and I stood in line for around twenty minutes before we were admitted to the Market hall. A large painting in the hall shows the Catholic Monarchs in armor receiving the keys to the city of Granada from Boabdil (Muhammad XII), the sultan who had gained power in the city during the rivalries that filled its last days as a Muslim capital.

Painting by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz: “The Rendition of Granada”

One of the visual elements that repeats ad nauseum throughout the chapel is the use of a yoke to represent Isabella (whose original spelling began with a ‘Y’) and a collection of arrows (“Flechas”) to represent Ferdinand. Essentially, one cannot take a single step in the chapel without encountering one of these symbols. The entrance to the chapel is under an unexpectedly low ceiling because the choir contains a balcony level. A side chapel in the open space before the choir absolutely sparkles with gold.

At left: yoke. At right: arrows

On the opposite side, I was surprised to see a painting of Ferdinand III embracing Muhammad I ibn Nasir, celebrating the agreement that would make the Emirate of Granada a tributary state of Castile. It is similar to one at the Prado, but it shows them embracing as brothers. For the next 250 years, Granada would pay an annual sum of gold to the Christian kingdom, acquired through trade with North Africa. It was ironic to see this treaty featured in the Royal Chapel of Ferdinand and Isabella because the pair conquered Granada, bringing this flow of gold to an end! Because Granada had been the last Muslim city remaining on the Iberian Peninsula, refugees from the Jewish and Muslim communities in other cities had flooded Granada. Some estimates suggest that Granada had become one of the most densely populated cities in Europe by 1450, perhaps exceeding even Paris!

[For the next description, I suggest you take a look at the photos posted by the Capilla Real itself.]

From the initial chamber, Natasha and I moved through the gate in the grill to review the two sarcophagi (one for Ferdinand and Isabella and one for their daughter and her husband). Joana and Philip fared better in their choice of sculptor. Their sarcophagus is much more dynamic and seems more three-dimensional. Even the pair of lions on the sarcophagus of Ferdinand and Isabella seems pretty tame. The tour then passed underground to allow viewing of their lead coffins in the crypt. A gilded crown sat at the far end of the chamber.

Sleepy lions (image from Quora)

The sacristy held many treasures, ranging from a silver crown worn by Isabella to a illuminated missal on vellum. Isabella’s masterly collection of devotional paintings was in really stellar condition, with brilliant colors everywhere. Natasha pointed me to a Botticelli I had missed, and I’d already enjoyed paintings by Memling. I though it was interesting that the two figures of Ferdinand and Isabella that had been initially been featured on the chapel’s high altar were on display (they were subsequently replaced). The originals seemed more vibrant than the replacements.

Natasha and I both experienced mixed feelings at the royal chapel. Naturally the audio guide script would take a sympathetic perspective to the people buried there. From a medieval Christian perspective, Ferdinand and Isabella were heroes of almost mythical stature; the Pope had been offering “Crusader” bonuses for anyone who would fight the Spanish Muslims for centuries! On the other hand, Isabel was clearly very extreme in her embrace of Catholicism. She initiated the Spanish Inquisition, for one, and her actions destroyed the lives and legacies of many thousands of people. I am not prepared to accept the hagiography of someone with that much blood on her hands.

The story of Plaza Nueva

Annotations on an 1831 map of Granada by Dalmau

This fight between progress and tradition echoes another engineering project from four centuries earlier. Ferdinand and Isabella won Granada from its Nasrid rulers in 1492, removing the last bastion of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. At the time, eight Nasrid bridges spanned the Darro River, including the bridge of al-Hattabin, which was in place at least as early as the 14th century. At one time, the citizens of Granada panned for gold in this river!

Plaza Nueva. The Chancery appears at the right edge.

The Christian rulers of this city, however, thought that the Darro occupied some very prime real estate; it curved past the base of Sabikah Hill, which is crowned by Alhambra, and then flowed through many neighborhoods of the city to join the Genil River. In 1506, two years after the death of Queen Isabella, the construction of a plaza over the river’s course was approved. Plaza Nueva was born! Within three decades, this new hub for the city was accompanied by its two canonical structures, the Royal Chancery (constructed 1530) and the Iglesia de Santa Ana (1537).

Santa Ana is a sixteenth-century church built on the site of a mosque.

Pave the Earth: the covering of the Darro River

This sixteenth-century building boom set an early pattern for Granada; when the old constructions no longer served contemporary purposes, they could be replaced. In the late 19th century, the city began an ambitious project to cover the Darro River all the way from Plaza Nueva to its union with the Genil River. I have tried to discover whether this was a single concerted effort or a piecemeal process over decades, but most of the information I could find related to the passionate responses the writers of Granada have penned as their river of gold was hidden from view.

This is the last we see of the Darro as it passes under Plaza Nueva.

Federico Garcia Lorca was one of the most illustrious poets of Spain, and he has a strong presence in Granada. He spent much of his childhood in the city, and it is now home to his museum, his house-museum, and another summer house his family visited.

Down below the river sings:
flight of sky and leaves.
The new light crowns itself
with pumpkin flowers.
O sorrow of the gypsies!
Sorrow, pure and always lonely.
Oh sorrow of the dark river-bed
and the far dawn!

Ballad of the Black Sorrow,” Garcia Lorca

I also encountered Leopoldo Torres Balbas, an architect and historian of Granada. His 1923 jeremiad, “Granada: the City that Disappears,” bemoaned all that was lost in this construction:

These are the monumental buildings whose destruction is still memory; but can we imagine the number of humble huts, picturesque corners, details disappeared in silence, without their memory being left behind? Yellowed photographs and old engravings tell us about the current street of the Catholic Monarchs before covering Darro.

Google Translate helped me with Balbas, page 163.

Despite these aggressive steps to build their city’s future, the people of Granada feel clear pride in the past of their city. As the city networks itself into the Ave high-speed train service, its magical reminders of that illustrious past will be available to ever larger numbers of people!

Seville: a Cathedral to the sky and the Giralda bell tower

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 29, 2018

Growing up in the United States, I frequently found myself “rooting for” Great Britain as I learned European history. I thrilled at Elizabeth I grappling with the Catholic menace of the Spanish Armada. To visit the massive Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See at Sevilla felt a bit like visiting Red Square to me!

A bit of history

A view of the cathedral from the entrance of Alcazar

[I am grateful to Danya Crites for many details from her excellent dissertation.]

Quite a long stretch of time lies between the Christian capture of Sevilla in 1248 and the construction of its Gothic cathedral, beginning in the 1430s. Along the way, Pedro I popularized the Mudejar style with his magnificent Alcazar palace. At Cordoba, the Mezquita had been modified only slightly for use as a Catholic cathedral (though this would soon change). Why, then, would the mosque at Sevilla be doomed to destruction, especially since its Giralda tower was so widely admired? The earthquake of 1356 might be a partial answer. October 18, 1356 brought the most destructive earthquake ever to strike central Europe, but Basel is a long way from Seville! Seville’s earthquake had arrived two months earlier, on August 24th. The force of the quake dislodged the yamur (pinnacle) of four gilded balls from the top of the giant Giralda, and it caused damage to another church tower in the city. Royal patronage was sought to rebuild churches throughout the city, and many of them opted for the new Mudejar style that had been popularized by Pedro’s Palace (even after his half-brother became king in his place). The mosque and Giralda, however, limped along until bigger changes arrived in the 1430s, when substantial construction began. Permission to demolish the royal chapel that had held the remains of Ferdinand III, conqueror of Seville, was not obtained until 1433; another earthquake in 1431 may have reminded the city that the old mosque was no longer structurally sound.

Who doesn’t love a stained glass window?

The clergy of Seville attempted to produce the largest Christian Church in the world, with the completed Cathedral of Toledo as a starting point. Their plans were stunning in scope, with a nave that measured 76 by 115 meters, larger than the cathedral at Milan (begun 1386 A.D.) or Florence (1296 A.D.) or Ulm (1377 A.D.). St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (1506 A.D.) was the only near contemporary to exceed its footprint or volume. In recent years, the Basilica at Aparecida, Brazil has exceeded the square area and volume of the Sevilla Cathedral. Sevilla remains the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, though. In 1677, Zuniga wrote in his history of the city that one of the chapter members exclaimed “We will have a church so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad!” It’s a great quote, even if it was wholly fabricated.

The Renaissance dome of the Chapterhouse really blew my mind.

As construction continued, the design was influenced by the strong relationship between church leadership and the Catholic Monarchs. Queen Isabella I favored a design that represented a transition between late Gothic and early Renaissance styles; because of her, this type is called “Isabelline.” Mudejar design elements had lost the royal vogue that Pedro I had conferred more than a hundred years before. As Renaissance design became more popular, its incompatibility with Mudejar imposed more limitations, and eventually the Mudejar style simply lost its momentum. The Cathedral was completed in 1511, though the collapse of a crossing element just five years later required additional construction.

Our visit

That short wall is the coro, with organ pipes ascending to either side.

As I walked into the cathedral’s nave, I muttered to myself, “Go up, or go home.” It is clear that the designers wanted a ceiling lost in the heavens. The coro “box” structure was several times my height, and the organ pipes launched from there into the skies.

The retablo showing scenes from the life of Jesus

The high altar “retablo” apparently consumed the entire lifetime of Pierre Dancart to carve; it features 45 scenes from the life of Jesus. As I’ve seen in other Catholic churches, though, the beautiful carving is sequestered behind bars of iron. One could be sitting in the front row of pews and yet be unable to see the details of any of the scenes.

Where did all of South America’s silver go?

Sevilla has accumulated many priceless artifacts and reliquaries over time. We saw amazing pieces in the main vestry and chapter house. Natasha pointed me to a large silver monstrance reliquary purported to contain a “Holy Thorn” (as in the Crown of Thorns).

This isn’t the Thorn. I just thought it was pretty.

I really loved a woodcarving that had once been given to the Duke of Parma.

I would never expect such remarkable detail from wood!

Any American visiting Seville Cathedral will be sure to stop at the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. It’s very stately, with the kings of Leon, Aragon, Castile, and Navarre each represented by a pall-bearer wearing the coat of arms for each kingdom. The figures seem almost ghostly to me. It’s an impressive sight, whether or not the explorer is inside the casket.

The stately pall-bearers of Columbus.

Hunting for Saint Ferdinand

I had a more obscure goal in mind, though. I wanted to see the tomb of Ferdinand III, the Castilian king who captured Cordoba and Seville. His tomb, however, was in the altar of the royal chapel and it was not open to the public on the day of our visit. I was glad to see a painting of him in the Cathedral entrance hall, though.

Ferdinand III, King of Castile, Saint, and lover of architecture

Since the cathedral calendar showed that a service would be held that night at 18:00, and the royal chapel was slated to be open at that time. I came to the cathedral that night, entering from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes rather than the main door. Sure enough a corral there allowed me to see that the royal chapel was open, but I could not get closer. I mentioned to the security guard that I had hoped to see Ferdinand III’s tomb, and he surprised me by walking me to the entrance! It would be very hard to miss seeing the tomb as it dominates the altar. Letters hung quite high above the altar read “Per Me Reges Regnant,” (essentially, kings rule in order to serve God). I loved that his tomb is inscribed in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew!

The Giralda

[Let’s back up time to our afternoon visit.]

To complete our visit to the cathedral, Natasha and I were determined to visit the famous bell tower of Seville. Ferdinand III rode a horse to the top of this tower when he conquered the city, and we would follow in the horse’s steps! Our path put among hundreds of other tourists, though, and soon we were climbing the ramps leading up the four sides of the tower, occasionally pausing to let blobs of tourists clear downward. I believe our ascent of the 34 landings took us roughly half an hour. The observation level sits just below a carillon of bells. They were beautiful, hanging ponderously above us, but all the tourists were scrambling for the perimeter of the tower to shoot as many selfies and panoramic images as possible.

Does nobody climb a bell tower to see the bells?

I shot a few telephoto images from each of the four balconies, but it was hard to aim in the bright sunlight.

The Giralda is the highest structure for miles. This is the Iglesia de Santa Cruz.

Shooting on the descent was rather more fun. Natasha and I visited each of the central alcove museum exhibits on the way down, and Natasha spotted some really fetching gargoyles. For me, the highlight would be the clock mechanism that operated from 1400 to 1960. Let’s hear it for the engineers!

These fellows had a lot of character.

With that, Natasha and I erupted into the Patio of Oranges, almost missing the (faux) stuffed alligator and elephant tusk hanging above the exit. We both enjoyed being in this, the oldest part of the cathedral. We had seen a very similar patio of orange trees at the Mezquita, after all. We had been at the Cathedral for only three hours, though it seemed that every minute was packed with some wonder or another. Natasha found another laugh as she spotted a rude face sculpted in the exit gate.

I don’t know why he guards the exit, but I like him.

For the folks back home…

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and so I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the buildings and fountains in Seville have been replicated in my home town. I wanted to include these images so others from home will know that they can see a bit of Kansas City in Seville, our sister city!

Our avenue is not an afterthought, and you can find it right by the train station!
I believe this fountain will be familiar to many of us!

Seville: Iterations of Italica

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 29, 2018

Natasha prepared a special surprise for our last full day in Seville. She had reserved a taxi to take us to Italica! Founded in 205 B.C. during the Second Punic War, Italica was the first permanent Roman settlement in Hispania. I visited Pompeii in 1994, and Natasha visited Ephesus in 1998. Today, we would get the chance to see Italica together!

A tiny history

The Battle of Ilipa, fought near what would become Seville in 206 B.C., was decisive in driving Carthaginian armies from the Iberian Peninsula. Scipio the Younger faced a larger army, but his crafty repositioning of his legions to the wings rather than the center won the day. Scipio resolved to treat many of his wounded by setting up a small town for that purpose, and Italica was born the following year. At the time, a tributary of the Guadalquivir passed close to the town site, originally settled by the Iberian Turdetani people. When Rome reorganized in 14 B.C. under Augustus, its first Emperor, Hispania was separated into three Imperial Provinces, with Italica located inside Baetica.

The Golden Age for Italica came during 98-138 A.D. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian, who ruled one after the other, were both born in the city. Both of their families had been early emigrants to Italica from Italy. Hadrian, in particular, lavished attention and money on the city (he spent more than half his reign on travels throughout the empire). Hadrian also upgraded Italica from municipium to “Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica.” The part of the city that Natasha and I visited, the nova urbs, was initiated by Hadrian.

Our visit

We came to the main gate at 9AM, just as the site opened. A cold mist was in the air. Although the ampitheatre beckoned, we turned to the left toward the residential area. Almost immediately we were presented with a conundrum; were the structures we saw limited to ruins, or were we seeing attempted reconstruction?

We waited for the sun to climb a bit before we nabbed a photo.

I felt very excited to walk on a genuine Roman road, paved in large, flat, but irregularly shaped stones. How often do we get to travel down two thousand year old streets? Italica would have been nearly as old as the United States is today in the days of Jesus. Its founding dates from Republican Rome rather than the later Empire.

The two closest gods are Mercury and Jupiter.
Why do they call it the House of the Birds?

If you enjoy mosaics, Italica will be a special place for you. We first saw examples from the city at the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid. Happily several beautiful examples remain in place at the site itself. I believe my favorites was the seven gods representing the days of the week at the House of the Planetarium. It was in immaculate condition, and the colors and personality of the work were both vivid. I would certainly not gainsay those who prefer the House of the Birds, though! Natasha happily investigated drains and hypocausts.

I feel pretty comfortable saying this one is a reconstruction!

When we reached the Cañada Honda, we had an eye-opening moment. The Cañada Honda originally connected the new city with the old, which was much larger. Today the route runs directly toward the modern suburb of Santiponce (founded in 1601), which was largely built atop the ruins of the older Roman city. This earliest Roman settlement in Spain probably reached 10,000 citizens at its crest.

Santiponce is a short walk away.

With that thought in mind, Natasha and I navigated two last sites. The first was a massive bath complex spanning 30,000 square meters. Happily, the site has a scaffolding in place so that visitors can take in the layout from above. I took the opportunity to produce a panoramic image.

We are looking straight ahead into the frigidarium.

At last we could come back to the ampitheatre close to the site entrance. We had been stunned by the site when we first saw it in Season 7 of Game of Thrones The ampitheatre was once able to seat 25,000 people from across this region. It is in remarkably good condition. Natasha and I giggled to ourselves as we walked through the intact tunnels beneath the first ranks of seating.

The intrepid archaeologist in her native habitat.
This is where the Romans stowed their wild beasts.

We hadn’t left ourselves much time, but we visited the small on-site interpretation centre. The text mostly spoke to the pilfering of building supplies from this site as Seville and Santiponce grew in population. If the noble amateur “archaeologists” saw fit to remove priceless statues for display on their estates, why shouldn’t a person trying to assemble a home for his or her family take away a few bricks? It is remarkable that these ruins, particularly the mosaics, have remained in place for so long!

It is matter for sober reflection, as the traveller stands above these ruins, to consider that they were once filled with the healthy and the gay, and that as they have passed off, so all shall fulfil the common lot, and recede from life’s busy scene; whilst the sun rises as he is wont, and the face of nature, and the spring with returning vegetation, smile on a future generation, and will smile for ever on those to come, but cannot bring back what once has been.

from The Shores of the Mediterranean, Chapter III, by Frank Hall Standish (1837)

Seville: Alcazar is more than just a pretty face

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 28, 2018

We had a slow start to our Friday, and so Natasha and I came to Seville’s premiere tourist destination just after 10AM. The Sevilla Alcazar draws a lot of attention, and we were sad to see a line extending across the entire length of the wall separating the palaces from Plaza del Triunfo. Why hadn’t we purchased our tickets in advance?

We shivered our way forward in the wall’s shadow, a few steps at a time. After the line turned toward the entrance, we broiled in the sun for another 20 meters. Over those three hours, we had plenty of time to talk to three South Americans in front of us and a pair from central China behind us. We watched with envy as tour groups and pre-purchased ticket visitors entered through the short line to our left. The site operators only allow a small batch of people to enter at predefined intervals.

Alcázar de Sevilla. Planta baja (2000)

Medieval history is a bloody book

Alcazar at Sevilla is one of the world’s cultural treasures. (Throughout this post, I will not write “The Alcazar” because it feels redundant to me.) It would be easy to be swept away by its graceful lines and elegant tracery, but it is important to remember the history that led to its creation. Abd ar-Rahman III, the Caliph of Cordoba, faced a revolt in the first year of his reign (913 AD), and he decided it was time to build a castle to control Sevilla (alcazar means the Moorish fortress or palace– many cities in Andalusia feature alcazars). This early Alcazar would have carried a red and white design like the one we saw at the Cordoba Mezquita. While the Caliph’s structure was extended by Al-Mutamid in the eleventh century, this fortification was later completely destroyed, with only fragments available to later historians. During the Abbadid dynasty, the structure was expanded significantly, and this Palace of Good Fortune formed the bones of the structures we know today as the Palace of Pedro I and the Gothic Palace.

We liked the doors and tapestries, but the Gothic Palace is not why we came to Alcazar.

In 1248, Seville fell to the forces of Fedinand III of Castile (who died four years later). From this time, Sevilla became a royal city, with Alcazar serving as the royal household. The son of Ferdinand III, Alfonso X the Wise, launched construction of the Gothic Palace, but the pace of change slowed for many years until Alfonso XI won the Battle of Rio Salado in 1340. The king celebrated this victory by creating the Hall of Justice next to Patio del Yeso as his throne room, and he did so in a new architectural style called Mudejar (from the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated” or “tamed”). By using a highly ornate style stolen from his enemies, Alfonso XI was making a statement about his might: “such appropriations were signs of triumph in which Christianity expressed its domination over a subjugated al-Andalus.

The Pedro I Palace facade. Mudejar design is how Alcazar captivates tourists.

Alfonso XI’s successor, Pedro I, brought Mudejar architecture to astonishing heights in Alcazar, but he did so for completely different reasons. Just nine years into Pedro’s reign, Muhammad V (the Nasrid ruler of Granada) was forced into exile, and he was housed in the Seville Alcazar. Pedro assisted Muhammad V to return to power in Granada, quite unlike his father, who had gloried in his battle victory over that kingdom. Pedro developed strong relationships with the Jewish community, as well, with a rabbi serving as his personal physician and a financier Samuel Levi as his chief treasurer. Today, when people gush about the Alcazar, they are doing so because the Palace of Pedro I is an architectural marvel of sublime art. It might surprise you, then, to know that Pedro of Castile is known to history as “the Cruel.”

Pedro inherited a sizable problem in that Alfonso XI had ten children with his mistress, Leonor de Guzman (ironically, Pedro created problems for himself through his fascination with his own mistress, Maria de Padilla). After the death of Alfonso XI, Pedro’s mother ordered the death of Leonor de Guzman through Pedro’s chancellor, Juan Alfonso. After that, Leonor’s sons by Alfonso XI were sworn enemies of Pedro. Pedro responded with a bit of a bloodbath, but he never managed to kill Enrique Trastamara, his eldest illegitimate half-brother, though he did kill many of Enrique’s siblings. Castile had begun a war against Aragon early in Pedro’s reign, but Enrique managed to trigger a civil war by bringing French troops home with him when he returned from exile. He gained popular support by massacring Jewish communities in several cities, taunting Pedro as the “King of the Jews.” Through a ruse, Enrique was able to catch Pedro away from his army, and Enrique stabbed his half-brother to death. Enrique then became Henry II, the first of a new royal dynasty. As we wandered Alcazar, I marveled that such a bloody reign could have been accompanied by such artistry!

Sumptuous detail

That would be real gold.

As an appetizer for our visit to the palace, we enjoyed the Admiralty Room and the Contracting House. It felt strange to be walking in a room where Magellan planned his voyage to circumnavigate the Earth! Upstairs, we enjoyed a detailed mini-museum on the evolution of ceramic tile-making in Castile, culminating in the creation of ceramics that positively teem with color. I marveled that anyone would create tiles intended for royal use by incorporating real gold.

Apparently the carpentry talent was largely recruited from Toledo.

The woodcraft skills required to produce the ceilings and doors were out of this world. From time to time, Natasha would grab my arm and whisper “Look up!” It was always worth it.

…and then we entered the Pedro I Palace.

The Hall of the Ambassadors is absurdly rich.
My eyes could not really process this sight.

The rooms that are most frequently mentioned from this palace are truly wonderful: Patio de las Doncellas, Salon de Embajadores, and Patio de las Muñecas. They are also, however, filled with tourists (and clumps led by tour guides).

You will definitely want a wide-angle lens in the Courtyard of the Maidens!
The Court of Dolls is relatively small, but it is covered in beautiful design elements. It gets its name from the tiny faces at the base of the arch.

Scholars have put a fair bit of effort into recognizing phrases from Arabic and Latin that make their appearance in the delicate scroll-work of these walls. Much of the writing is so stylized that I did not recognize it as writing.

One should read “Plus Ultra” as “Charles the V wuz here.”

Of course, Carlos V reworked the adjoining “Gothic” palace and made some substantial changes even to the Pedro I palace. His motto “Plus Ultra” should have been visible in the updates, but the only place I saw it was in the glaringly obvious tiles celebrating his marriage to a Portuguese princess. He also made considerable changes to the Pedro I Palace, but I found it hard to discern them. I found this description of his alterations in an academic paper:

Between 1539 and 1556 Charles remodeled [Alcazar] in a way that was relatively respectful of the old fabric of the building and preserved its Islamic features. First of all, he had the corridors of the Patio de las Doncellas remodeled in the Spanish plateresque style. Above the original Mudejar decoration of 1369-79 on the lower level, he had Roman round arches constructed with his motto “Plus oultre” stamped on the upper-story columns and his device of the Pillars of Hercules on the lower-story portals. In the gardens, originally planted in the twelfth century with orange and lemon trees and surrounded by a boundary wall, Charles built a garden pavilion, La Alcoba (1543), with arched loggias around a central square.

The Renaissance Reception of the Alhambra: The Letters of Andrea Navagero and the Palace of Charles V
We felt transported when we emerged into these gardens!

I have not seen much mention of the Alcazar gardens, so I will just offer that they are stunning, even in midwinter. I liked the orange trees trimmed into cubes, and I had a little geek thrill to walk through the areas used to represent “Dorne “ in the HBO “Game of Thrones” series.

Some reflection

Given a three-hour wait to see the Seville Alcazar and a two hour journey through its grounds, it is reasonable to ask, “is it worth it?” Natasha and I were famished by the time we left, so arriving mid-morning without a ticket may not be the best scheduling. Still, we might have refueled at the on-site cafe. I can appreciate that the site tries to limit how many tourists are in the complex at once. The most popular chambers, though, are still so filled with people that photography is a challenge.

The fact remains that “Mudejar” art and design reached a high point in the Pedro I palace. I don’t know where else one could see such beauty (but you will want to compare with the upcoming posts from Granada!). I would like to think that the art produced in Pedro I’s reign can somehow take away the horrors of war that Castile endured under his rule. The Seville Alcazar is like a conflict diamond. It’s gorgeous, but try not to think of the suffering that brought it to you.

Seville: We find the Spanish Inquisition

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 27, 2018

Doesn’t everybody go in search of the Spanish Inquisition when they visit Sevilla?

Arriving by train early in the day, we were gratified to learn that the Hotel Alcazar was literally across the street from the back gardens of that fortress and that they would happily store our bags until the room was ready! After a bit of planning with the map, we were off to lunch at a restaurant she had learned about in a celiac forum for Sevilla. We started by walking up to the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca (formerly a mosque and formerly a synagogue). From there we passed through a bewildering succession of Iglesias, Plazas, and Calles to satisfy Google Maps. We came to rest quite near Plaza Nueva and munched our toasty sandwiches on gluten-free bread quite hungrily.

We started at the right and ran in a big, counter-clockwise loop.

Would every walk between sites be so crowded with people? Would every path dodge back and forth among so many streets and alleys? Already, we knew Sevilla would be less laid-back than our experience in Cordoba.

He’s a king! He’s a saint! He’s a statue!

We re-emerged at Plaza Nueva to see an equestrian statue of Ferdinand III of Castile. I have mentioned him previously as the Christian king who reclaimed the cities of Cordoba and Sevilla; the latter became the new capital city for Castile. He was canonized as a saint two centuries later. It is not entirely surprising, then, to find a statue celebrating him in Sevilla, especially given that city hall is at the same plaza!

We continued from there to Puente (bridge) de Triana, which offers a lovely view of the riverside docks that would once have served the voyages of exploration to the New World.

Yes, an ocean-going vessel can come upriver to Sevilla!

My attention, though, was fixed on the other end of the bridge, near which one can find the Centro Tematico de la Tolerancia del Castillo de San Jorge (the Tolerance Center of the Castle of Saint George). This name might seem rather obscure, so I’ll put it more plainly; the Castle of San Jorge was the center of operations for the Spanish Inquisition for almost 300 years.

Why did the Inquisition come to Spain and linger so long?

As the Chrisitan kingdoms reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, they found themselves inheriting a diverse and cosmopolitan population. The Jewish community of Spain had been persecuted under the Visigoths, and some Jews actually worked with the Muslims to encourage their invasion from North Africa. Living in a Muslim state worked out well for many Jews, though they did have to pay a yearly tax because they were not Muslims. After the fall of the Caliphate, al Andalus devolved into small taifa city-states, and the Jewish experience was more uneven. The Almoravids and Almohads both came to the Iberian Peninsula with deep suspicion of other religious groups, and Jewish schools and synagogues were closed or destroyed.

At some points in history, it seemed that Jews would be able to find a modus vivendi with the Christian kingdoms. The rules of Fedinand I of Castile and Alfonso VI showed promise, with Jews sometimes being afforded nominally full equality with Christians. By the time of Ferdinand III of Castile and James I of Aragon, however, segregation was back with a vengeance. Jews were compelled to wear yellow badges on their clothing. By the 14th century, the relationship between Christians and Jews had degraded so far that outright massacres took place. A good relationship had formed between the Jewish community and Pedro I (“The Cruel”) of Castile. Pedro’s half-brother Henry of Trastamera, however, rebelled against Pedro (ultimately becoming king in his place), and he massacred Jewish populations in several areas during 1366 to curry favor with the Christian masses. Ferrand Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija, also exploited this popular prejudice, and he persisted for decades to foment hatred against the Jewish community until his influence was felt in a variety of cities throughout the peninsula. On June 9, 1391, the people of Sevilla mobbed the Juderia district of the city, killing approximately 4000 people. This scourge then jumped from city to city.

As the Christians conquered cities from the Moors, then, they suddenly controlled many new citizens who were Jewish or who were Muslim. When Ferdinand and Isabella married, they gained the title “Catholic Monarchs” because of many actions to ensure that their kingdoms would be Catholic (not merely Christian). They completed the Reconquista in 1492 by taking Granada; it was the first time in more than 700 years that a Muslim kingdom no longer ruled any part of Spain! Queen Isabella took this opportunity to declare that no Jews would be allowed to remain in the Christian kingdoms. Any Jew who wanted to remain in Spain became a “Converso” by converting to Christianity; the expelled Sephardic Jewish community was spread to the four winds. Some Conversos, however, secretly retained Jewish practices at home. Similarly, Muslims were heavily pressured to become Christians, becoming “Moriscos.” The Christian kings, however, were inclined to distrust former Muslims and their descendants. Many Moriscos were expelled from Spain during 1609-1614.

If I may summarize this complex situation badly, Queen Isabella wanted the help of the Catholic Church in imposing religious conformity on the people of Castile and Aragon. In 1478, the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition answered that call. It would not be disbanded until 1834. What resulted was a profound injustice that should never be forgotten.

Our visit to San Jorge

Because the Castillo de San Jorge was razed in the early 19th century, the Center mostly guides tourists through the ruins (only recovered in the 1990s) to highlight the various ground-level structures. I was very glad that they included a scale model of the castle from its more operational days. The tour reminds us that the Spanish Inquisition had to manage day-to-day affairs like its mule stables and its bureaucracy (nuncio and notary). I responded strongly to the description of the “familiares,” who worked to convince their fellow citizens to cast suspicion on their neighbors. It seemed reprehensible to pay people to convince others to name targets of inquiry.

This model represents San Jorge during its use as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

I found the following outline on the inquisitorial process particularly helpful. The museum used the fictional example of a young woman trained in herbs who had been accused of witchcraft to walk through the steps.

  • Edict of faith / grace: This period allowed for voluntary confession and for implication of others.
  • Qualifying and Accusation: This phase required something like a “grand jury” of theologians to decide whether the evidence of heresy was compelling.
  • Clamosa: Detention was accompanied by confiscation of worldly goods. Interrogation was not limited to the “crime” but included one’s forebears and family members
  • Hearing: Immediate responses to charges were required, with no lawyers present. Defenses usually rested on showing that the accusers were known enemies, that the judges were predisposed against the victim, and establishing one’s character through witnesses.
  • Torment: Torture by the rack (stretching by ropes at wrists and ankles) was common, but the Inquisition had a wide variety of options.
  • Sentence: Inquisitors, the bishop’s representative, and legal experts reached a conclusion for each case.
  • Auto de fe: An all-day ceremony would publicly announce the sentences for heresy, with victims frequently dressed in “sambenitos.” The condemned who were sentenced to death on a pyre were burned at a special site called the Quemadero.
The stables, with space for five mules

The stories of two prominent inquisitors, Diego Rodriguez Lucero of Cordoba and Fernando de Valdes, were explained in some lighted panels. The former seemingly was heavily motivated by the wealth of his targets. His trumped-up charges were exposed when previously Jewish Christian converts testified that they had been required to teach the targets of the Inquisition Jewish prayers so that their “students” could be convicted! Even so, Lucero burned to death more than one hundred people in 1500 A.D. and again in 1504.

Fernando de Valdes

Valdes, on the other hand, was known as a stubborn, prickly noble even before he was named to the Inquisition. His behavior as an Inquisitor was such that his peers sometimes forced his recusal from the trials. He created an Index of banned books in 1559 and then wrote a book of his own that reorganized and reformed the process of the Inquisition.

I was glad to see that the museum could end on a more uplifting note. A display on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights helped to remind us of the real progress civilzation has made since the times of the Inquisition.

After the heavy content of the museum, Natasha and I wandered in the market at Triana. It was lovely to see so many people laughing over delicious-looking displays of cheese and sausage in a place that previous been home to horror. We both had sore feet, so we began our walk back to the hotel through the neighborhoods west of the Guadalquivir.

Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana

I stopped for a moment in the plaza next to Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana. The museum mentioned that the plaza had sometimes been used for the auto da fe ceremonies. Today’s Plaza Santa Ana is filled with tables and chairs from the cafes that line the square. The tower and facade are very pretty, with lively blues and reds accenting each. How could such a lovely place also have been home to such painful humiliations?

Torre del Oro

When we recrossed the river at Puente de San Telmo, the afternoon sun made everything seem a bit brighter. We marveled at the excellent view of the Tower of Gold (completed in 1220 A.D.), now serving as the Spanish Maritime Museum. A few more yards north brought us to a large fountain at the corner of the elegant Alfonso XII hotel.


This parade once held the “burning place” of the Inquisition.

In one of my last acts at the city of Sevilla, I took a walk to the Prado de San Sebastian, quite close to our hotel. This parade was home to the Quemadero, a platform with four statues at which many victims of the Inquisition were burned to death. It was originally constructed in 1481, and it remained in place until 1809. Today the Prado San Sebastian is a beautiful park, with rides for children. I paused for a moment in memory of the people who met terrifying deaths there.

According the best authorities, from 1481 to 1808, the Holy Tribunal of Spain burnt 34,612 persons alive, 18,048 in effigy, and imprisoned 288,109, the goods and chattels of every one them being first duly confiscated.

A tour with Cook through Spain, a series of letters, by Sir John Benjamin Stone