Poblenou Cemetery

Our next foray into the life and history of Barcelona was a visit to the Cemetery of Poblenou (meaning new town), the oldest cemetery in Barcelona, created in 1775 by Barcelona’s Bishop Josep Climent as a solution to the lack of space and insalubrious conditions of burying the dead (often called “cadavers” instead of “bodies” in Catalan) in the parishes within the walled city.
It was completely destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1813 but, since Spain didn’t fall to the Emperor, the cemetery was redesigned and blessed in 1819, becoming a working cemetery once again. It was designed along egalitarian lines, with all burial chambers lined up in quiet, almost serene rows. This concept pleased the merchants and bourgeois of Barcelona, and fell in line with their commercial and political aspirations (what better to be buried beside the aristocracy?) Sadly, in 1821, the cemetery saw thousands of burials due to a cholera epidemic in Barcelona. Many were buried in common graves without a name or a date.

Throughout the years, the cemetery saw many changes and extensions. One of them in 1849 was the addition of a chapel and a pantheon, where important merchants and bourgeois could now demonstrate –even in death– their aesthetics, good taste, social standing and financial worth. The upside was that many hired renowned architects and sculptors for the construction of their mausoleums, which has given the city fine examples of their work. The downside was that not everyone had great good taste.

Because, I presume, of their lack of real estate to bury their dead, Barcelona has chosen to commemorate them in square cubicles piled four, six, and eight levels high. There are kilometres of these cubicles, set into islands with central tombs for the rich. It reminds me of our interior crematoria, although since here they don’t have the little problem of snow, they can line them up outside.

The pantheon, on the other hand, reminded me that mortals are not free of hubris, even in death. Most of the overdone mausoleums are now falling into disrepair because they no longer have people to take care of them. Does that mean that these names have been completely forgotten? One can see the irony.

Why do we visit these places where no one lives? For the eerie peace you can find nowhere else. For the love of family shown through a well-tended spot, or the heartbreaking solitude of others, where moss, weeds, and crumbled stone have taken over. For the stories of lives well-lived or for souls forgotten, but remembered for a few short moments while we read their names and the interval between their birth and their death. These places remind us we are alive and still have time to do well with the time we have.

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A Question of Art

There are times when what is called art baffles me. People a lot more knowledgeable than me have asked the question: what makes something art? Obviously they’ve answered it, because museums and art galleries are full of paintings, sculpture, etc. that presumably made the grade. When I look at a Rubens, a Renoir, or a Michelangelo, I can, even though they may not be my cup of tea, appreciate the artistry, the veracity of the curves or perspective, the play of light on water.

Those concepts get lost, for the most part, in modern and contemporary art. The artists have done away with conventions such as representation in reaction to the world they lived/live in and have searched for ways to express what they see or feel. Sometimes I find pieces attractive for their own sake and leave it at that. Other times, however, I’m faced with works that are as opaque to me as a piece of obsidian.

This was the case today. We visited the Antoni Tàpies Foundation. Tàpies (1923-2012), one of Europe’s most famous European artist of his generation, was influenced by Miro and Paul Klee. His major contribution, however, was being the first to use mixed media, some of which we saw this afternoon. There were pieces I found interesting but others simply made me ask: who decides what is art?

It has always been a controversial question. I remember the outrage against our own National Gallery for buying Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire. People would say, “my kid could paint that!” or “It’s not art if I don’t like it.”

I’ve come to understand that, just like contemporary music, you must look at the works within the context they were created and how they advanced art itself. In short, you have to do your homework in order to understand them. I find that tedious, with no guarantee that with understanding (of often times esoteric concepts) will come appreciation.

With all that mulling, I’ve had to conclude that I’m hopeless. I’ll probably never understand nor appreciate some of the works in all these museums we visit, but that’s okay: others do. Since no one will expect me to become a curator, I can relax and look at what I enjoy, bypass what I don’t, and maybe, once in a while, stop to look at a piece and try to understand it.

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The Grande Dame of Avenues

The grande dame of Avenues

Starting from the main Plaza, Plaça de Catalunya and heading north is Barcelona’s largest, most imposing of avenues, the Passeig de Gracià. Originally known as the “Camino de Jesus,” it was the only road leading to the village of Gracià, which was an independent village until 1897. The only construction at the time was the convent of the Franciscans of the Virgin Mother of Jesus, which consisted of a convent, a church, a cemetery and a garden, which were all destroyed during the War of Independence in 1808.

After many false starts, the Passeig was inaugurated in 1827: it was 42 meters wide and became the favorite lane for 19th century Barcelona aristocracy to demonstrate their abilities with horse and carriages, hence the name Passeig or Promenade.

Casa Batllo

It then became the central point for the development of the Estanche, the first neighborhood of Barcelona that was the project of Ildefonso Cerdá for the 7,46 km² area. Soon the Passeig became the right address to have for the Barcelona bourgeoisie. It became even more famous when the Modernism movement (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau) began, in a search of a renewed Catalan culture during the “Renaixença”, or Catalan Rebirth, The modernists architects Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech i Montaner and Sagnier built their architectural wonders on that very street, which gave birth to the Casa Llegó i Morera, Casa Amatller, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Casa Batllo, and, a bit further out, Casa de las Punxes. In 1906, Pere Falques designed the “bancs-fanals” –trencadis benches topped with street lights– that tied the street to the houses. Modernism also extended to furniture and domestic objects, painting, literature, etc.

Trencadis tile

However, not everyone was happy about the new architecture. For a time, the area that encompasses the Modernists buildings was called the “Illa de la discordia” or Block of Discord, because residents felt that the new style destroyed the aesthetics of the time.

It is true that the Modernist houses break from the architecture of the times of grand façades, wrought iron balconies and sober decorations. These bourgeois residences are, in fact, still delightful and quite a contrast to the cramped, dark, and often dank (and smelly) alleys and dwellings of the Barrí Gothic, or to the plain four to eight stories of newer neighborhoods.

Not all Modernist art is the same and you can count Gaudí as being the extreme of the group. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, although I can appreciate Gaudí’s genius and his incredible thinking process for creating almost alien (as in outer space) structures, I can’t warm up to him. I find him difficult to understand, probably because I don’t know enough about Catalan history, just as Miró, Picasso and Dalí (who was an admirer of Gaudí) can be obscure without knowledge of their background and their artistic evolution. Incidentally, Miró was a Catalan and Picasso considered Barcelona as his city of adoption.

Palau de la Musica

I’m much more attracted to other Modernist architects such as Domènech i Montaner Who built the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana. It has touches of Modernist decorations on the outside but it’s inside that his artistic genius shines, especially in the concert hall. The Musical Palace is ” typical of Catalan modernism in that curves predominate over straight lines, dynamic shapes are preferred over static forms, and rich decoration that emphasizes floral and other organic motifs is used extensively” (Wikipedia). But it’s its skylight and surrounding stained glass instead of walls that makes it, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen. And going to a concert there, as we have, is truly magical.

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A Tale of Two Churches

La Seu, the Cathedral of Barcelona, is one of the important examples of the Catalan Gothic style, which is plainer and flatter than regular Gothic churches. It is one of the oldest churches in Spain, having been built on two previous churches and, before than, on a Roman temple. The earliest record dates to 343 AD. Its first stone was laid on May 1st, 1298 during Jaume I’s (James I) reign. It was completed, without a dome, in 1450 when Alfonso V was on the throne.
The church is made of only three naves and an apse, with a choir in its center and an ambulatory behind the main altar. It boasts 25 chapels inside the church itself and 16 around the cloister attached to one side of the church. Legend has it that the geese have been there since Roman times, squawking and honking as intruders would scale the fortified walls of the town.
The cathedral also contains the remains of Barcelona co-patron, St. Eulalia, the teenager who died a martyr after suffering many tortures and never denying her faith. (I find it quite interesting that Barcelona has not one, but two females as patrons) Her remains are lodged in an elaborate crypt.
The facade of the church was only completed in the 19th Century and the cimborio (an octagonal lantern with a dome) dates from the 20th Century. Although both look extremely fine, I find it a bit of a let down that they saw the need to embellish the cathedral because it didn’t look “cathedral-ish” enough.
An interesting titbit: the choir was built when Barcelona hosted the members of the Golden Fleece, whose membership contained kings and princes. We can still see their Coat of Arms painted above their seats.
Another interesting church is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the sailors’ protector. It is the only church with the real Catalan Gothic style because it was erected in only 55 years, between 1329 and 1383.
The church sustained an earthquake and two fires, the last in 1936 the more devastating. The church burned for 11 days and everything was lost except for the stained glass windows at the highest level, which the fire couldn’t reach. The magnificent baroque, gilded altar, as well as all the archives and paintings perished in the blaze.It was then that they decided to leave her bones showing as the church’s own decorations. And it doesn’t disappoint. The columns soar to the ceiling and join as proof of a masterful construction with stones brought in by ship and on the “bastaixos”‘s backs from a quarry on Montjuic.
It is very strange, and somewhat refreshing, to see such a plain church, after the highly ornamented, gilded, sculpted, flowered, painted, etc. of the Spanish churches.
Two beautiful ladies, similar yet different, that are the representation of life and faith in Barcelona. It will be interesting to see if others give the same impression.

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Sunshine and Water

Sunshine with only a few clouds. Light wind. 23C. Time to hit Barcelona’s beach. Or should I say:beaches. We started in Port Vell (Old Port) where the industrial waterfront was replaced by the Port Olympic (for the 1992 Summer Olympics) and kilometres of pristine, sandy beaches and boardwalk.

The marina in Port Vell abounds with enormous, mega-expensive crafts (some with the de-rigueur helicopter on the deck). Walking along the boardwalk, you can smell the ocean as soon as you clear the marina. Shortly after, bands of golden sand and quiet sea greet you to your right. To the left, each beach has its share of cafés and most importantly, free showers and toilets, which are quite clean, considering the traffic.

Further inland, another exploratory amble brought us to the Parc de la Ciutadella, a spot of green park in the middle of el Born quarter. The park takes its name from the ciutadella (citadel) Felipe V built on that spot as a means of defence for the city. But the Catalan hated everything that came from the Bourbon King and Madrid. The citadel was demolished in 1869 and turned into a park. It became the counterpoint to the Arc de Triomf, built at the end of a grand pedestrian avenue that leads to the Park. The Arc the Triomf, a brick-red, Mujedar-style structure was erected in 1888 for the Barcelona International Exhibition. It’s sort of plunked there, with nothing much around, and is pretty indicative of its function: the Ex was a flop, so you come to wonder what triumph the Arch celebrates.

The Park itself is typical of Spanish parks: wide, sandy paths (beware, the blowing wind) with little or no shade unless you slip under a tree where you can sit on the grass, have a picnic, and people-watch.

In the centre of the park you find a small lake where you can paddle a rented rowboat, although circling the lake won’t take you more than 10 minutes, if that. On one side, apart from the lake, is an immense “cascada” (fountain) that combines statues, rock, greenery and gushing water. It was built by Josep Fontserè with the help of a young Gaudi.

The beach and the park were a nice relief from the narrow, sometimes stifling – and definitely confusing– streets, squares, and alleys of the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter). Although they have their charm, being in open air and simply breathing, is wonderful.

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A Story of Giants

Today, 24 September, is the official feast-day of La Mercè, the Virgin of Mercy. Many events are happening through the city of Barcelona but we got up early to go see the “Passada de Gegans i Capgrossos” in the Plaça de St Jaume, a yearly event that has its beginnings in Medieval Catalunya.

We followed two papier-mâché giants to the square in front of City Hall. Soon, more than 80 giants came out of the arched doorway of City Hall to take position all around the square. All of them had elaborate, pristine costumes, proof of pride for the region each giants came from. This left plenty of time for photos and for kids to exclaim their delight and choose their favourite.  Half an hour later, four teams of “trabucaires,” groups of men and women in 18th century costumes holding blunderbuss(es?) began to shoot into a circle that had been evacuated of onlookers. The role and tradition of the trabucaires is basically as accompaniment, which consists of “gallear” or shooting in the air to make noise to alert, announce or emphasize an important event. Some of the weapons were obviously quite old, and misfired often. The noise was so intense that, even with my fingers drilled into my ears, I could feel the detonations through my chest down to my feet. Since I was standing right behind one of those gentlemen, I got more than my fair share.

Once the 18th century shooters had spent their last petards, the crowd was moved and remodelled to make space in the middle of the square to accommodate the giants so they could dance while a band –mainly winds with a drum– accompanied them. Each giant came from a particular town or region, and so did their band. The giants are often kings and queens from specific parts of history (such as Jaume I and his consort Violant of Hungary) but they’re also common people, farmers and fishers, scholars and maidens, among others.

The tradition dates back to the 15th century when the giant figure of Goliath was followed by David and St. Christopher in a parade of the Corpus Christi in 1424. Throughout the 19th century, the surrounding provinces and villages began to create giants that represented them,which gave them a local identity, but it was only after a competition in Barcelona of Giants, Dwarves and Typical Monsters (Concurs de gegants, nanos i monstros tipichs) that the movement began to soar.

Franco’s era forced people to put away their giants but, upon his death, many villages dusted up their puppets and recovered their festive traditions. The creation of a Giants’ Guild solidified the tradition into a renewed event.

The entire feel of the event was definitely medieval, despite all the phones and high-tech cameras taking pictures and videos. The giant statues are transported on the shoulders of volunteers who only have a small aperture to see; and yet, they are fleet of foot and their dancing has a decidedly regal air.

The dances ended with the giants regrouping and parading through the streets of Barcelona, followed by hordes of adults and kids. We bid them adieu there and left the event. It was fun, sometimes exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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Barcelona: First few hours

We arrived in Barcelona around noon, under grey, menacing skies, and humid heat. During our taxi ride to our apartment, right away the feel of the city seemed different than any others. The city felt charged, just like the forecast thunderstorms. In chatting with our taxi driver, who immediately converted himself into a tourist guide when he realised we could understand him, he told us we had arrived during one of the most important festivals in Barcelona: La Mercè.

La “Festa Major” is dedicated to the Virgin of Mercy, co-patron of Bacelona and occurs at the time summer changes into fall. In 1865, during a pestilence of locust, the city councillors voted to appeal to the Virgin for help. Soon the locusts were gone; a further appeal for help in 1714 by Barcelona’s Navy turned the tide of fortunes around for Barcelona, making her prosperous and cementing La Mercè as a protector of the city. The festival began in 1875 and has occurred every year since then except for the Civil War years.

As we settled in to our apartment, just off Via Laetana in the heart of El Born, a cacophony of drums erupted, echoing on the adjacent buildings. It was so loud, we had to go out and investigate. We saw teams of drummers roaming around, obviously finished for the moment: we had missed our chance. Little did we know. the drumming was the precursor of the “correfoc” or fire run. After sundown, people dress in huge devils, dragons, fireflies, etc. and walk along the Via Laetana spewing flames out of every possible orifice. The spectators run into their paths and get singed by the sparkles (Think supersize birthday sparkles, add whistles). The monsters are accompanied by hordes of drum players, who chase them down the road. The parade started at 6pm and by 11pm it hadn’t wound down. Here is a preview.

Next day, we went in search of la “sardana” dancing groups at Plaça de la Mercè. This is a traditional Catalan dance, with people dancing in lines and executing a series of complicated steps. Everyone takes part, with the youngsters performing a bit more vigorously. You can see a sample here. They are accompanied by traditional sardana bands, made up mainly of brass instruments.

Another event we wanted to see was the building of the “castellers”, the human towers that can go up to 8 levels of people, culminating into the “canalla,” which means youngsters, who form the “pom de dalt” or the crown of the castle, a very perilous position for ones so young. There are different formations, one more difficult than the other. The competitions are between teams from all over Spain and last over 4 hours in full sun in Plaça St Jaume. The unrelenting sun and the masses of people made us turn back, but we didn’t miss the show. It was televised in direct and was as impressive as if we’d been there.

If this is an indication of what awaits us in Barcelona, we’ll be busy. We couldn’t be happier.

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Aranjuez

Half an hour of train and we found ourselves in Aranjuez, one of the sites the Spanish royalty liked to summer in. Going there, I expected the usual: a castle or palace at the top of a hill surrounded by houses tripping down to the flats.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, there is a town on top of a hill with houses running down each side of it. What it doesn’t have, is a castle at the top. The Aranjuez Palace is at the bottom, a ten-minute walk from the train station. There are several reasons for that. It wasn’t built in times of war therefore didn’t need to be defended. The palace was initially built as a hunting lodge and was far less impressive than it is now. Then Philip II moved the capital city from Toledo to Madrid and he needed a place to escape the heat in summer. But it’s only after it was almost destroyed by fire in 1748 that the king hired the great architect Francesco Sabatini to rebuild and enlarge. Thus we now have a main building flanked by two wing that form a “u”, surrounding in part a great plaza. Another reason for the situation of the palace was that later on, Isabel II had the train from Madrid stop at her door, something she couldn’t have done up on a hill.

The interior, including the main staircase, can only be qualified as grandiose. Silk wallpaper or rare Dutch tapestries cover the walls, damask and embroidered tulle or velvet and satin cover windows and seats, the furniture is gilded, the ceilings sport frescoes with allegorical or religious stories with the recurring theme of the monarchy’s good government, and marble floors designed by the best Italian architects.

One room is entirely covered with rococo-style porcelain from the Royal Porcelain Factory of Buen Retiro that Philip II had brought back from Italy. Even the walls are covered with porcelain plaques screwed into beams at the back. The room as a Chinese theme as was the fashion of the time and took its creator Giuseppe Gricci from 1763 to 1765 to create. Even the candelabra is porcelain: it is shaped as a palm tree under which there is a “Chinaman” with a fan and a monkey on his shoulder.

Another room of note is the Mozarab-style room decorated with muqarnas similar to those of the great Alhambra. Instead of the usual mosaics, it was created with plaster and painted. The effect is somewhat dizzying, as every inch of wall is covered with decorations in the Arabic style. It was the only place in the palace where men could smoke.

Isabel II, the last queen of Spain, put her stamp on mainly every room in the palace. Most of the rooms have been preserved as they were in her time.

If you go to Aranjuez, a visit to the gardens is a must. They surround the palace and the city has encroached on some of the 750 acres of gardens that are now maintained by the historical branch of the Spanish government. The grounds teem with working fountains (although they stop working after one o’clock to start again later in the day). Grand, straight alleys made for horseback riding are flanked with immense plantain trees, some as tall as 120 feet (38 meters) and more than 200 years old. As you walk away from the palace and deeper into the gardens, deep silence is broken only by the sound of the Tagus river flowing, the wind stirring the leaves and the chirping of birds.

I have always been fascinated by Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The music tries to transport you to another place and another time. Rodrigo said that his music tries to capture “the scent of magnolias, the singing of birds and the water sounds of the fountains” of the Aranjuez gardens. They are truly an instrument of inspiration.

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National Archaeology Museum

Lodged in an imposing Palace that took 30 years to build, the Madrid Archeological Museum is a marvel of contemporary architecture inside, contrasting with the artifacts it shows. The cases holding the unbelievably old pieces — some as old as 5-8 millions years old– are well-lighted and informative, the arrangements of artifacts is pleasing to the eye and dust-free, and the progression from room to room is smooth and logical. The museum has virtual reality stations dotted throughout its time periods, giving the visitor an idea of how people lived during a particular era. It also has tactile stations for the visually impaired –and the curious– to get an idea of what the artifacts “looked” like to the touch.

The museum was founded in 1867 by Queen Isabel II of Spain, to represent Spanish history from prehistory to today. The museum offers a panorama of all the ancient civilizations that, at one point, lived in the country. Almost all empires, from the Punic to the Norman and beyond have conquered Spain and lived in its varied regions.

The visit begins with prehistory where there are truly amazing pieces, including skulls and bones of pre- Homo Erectus. What surprised me was that, as soon as the early people were confident they could survive, they began to make art, drawing on tools, making toys, painting caves. This happened way before a religion was established. The need for expression has been a force from our own beginnings.

Moving on through time, the museum has an impressive collection of Roman mosaics, extracted from Roman villas established in Spain, sculptures such as the luminous Dama de Elche or the superb statue of the Roman Empress Livia, a magnificent crown from the Visigoth treasure of Guarrazar, perfect examples of Mozarabic and Arabic sculpting techniques shown in ivories, inlays,arches, windows and ceilings, all installed in the museum itself.

The museum is a delight that seemingly never ends. It’s also fairly empty of visitors, which is a shame in a way but does let you take your time. I would carve out a good two hours if you want to visit. It is, by far, the best museum I’ve ever seen. It’s a must.

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Sorolla Museum

For our first outing in Madrid, we optedto go see the Sorolla Museum, somewhat out of the beaten trail. Having admired one of Sorolla’s painting at the Prado last year, we wanted more.The museum did not disappoint.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was a celebrated Spanish painter of the twentieth century. His luminous paintings, many in large formats, are a delight for the eye. His mastery of light, of the vibrant colors under the sharp Spanish sun, is unequalled. You want to touch the slky skin of a nude shoulder, the satiny smoothness of bedsheets, or rub between your fingers a muslin scarf floating in the wind.

Sorolla, thought his art, is also a chronicler of his time. He paints the hard life of people in Spain, be they fisherwomen, immigrants, or beggars. He depicts the richness of local costumes,the indolence of a hot summer afternoon, or the innocent pleasure of naked children playing on the beach. (For a view of some of his paintings, click here. He found his family –wife, daughters and son– and endless source of inspiration; his depictions of normal family life are full of great affection and respect.

Once you’ve admired Sorolla’s paintings and the many objects he accumulated throughout his life, you can walk through the charming miniature gardens fronting his house, an oasis of calm in a bustling corner of Madrid. Sorolla designed them himself and took pleasure in painting parts of them at the end of his life.

Sorolla was prolific and enjoyed an immense reputation, both in Europe and the United States. At the top of his career, he had an exhibition of 550 of his works in Paris; the country was so enamored with his art that he was awarded the Legion of Honor. He received similar kudos when he showed 336 of his paintings in New York.

The museum is situated in the painter’s house and studio where he stayed in the last days of his life. Clotilde,his wife, donated the house and its contents to the Spanish government on the condition that it would be transformed into a museum dedicated to her husband’s works. It assembles the best collection of his works, including many paintings of the love of his life, his wife Clotilde and his children Maria, Elena and Joaquin.

We returned home with the white Spanish light in our eyes and a wonder that remains still.

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Segovia

While shopping for a Talavera plate to add to our collection, the owner of the shop recommended the town of Segovia to us. We wanted to do something for our last week in Spain and follow his advice. It’s a more convoluted trip than the one for Toledo: suburban train to the north train station, Chamartín, 30 minutes Very Fast Train to the Segovia train station, twenty minutes local bus to the first plaza, the Plaza del Aqueducto.

And there it is. The 2000-years old Roman aqueduct transects the square that marks the beginning of the old town. Build at the beginning of the 2nd Century BC, it was used as the main source of water in Segovia until late in the nineteenth century. It originated in the Guadamarra mountains and spanned over 16 kilometers. It has 167 arches. It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering: the stone are not joined by cement or mortar. Yet it still stands today. It is breathtaking and takes over everything around it. You can’t see anything but this majestic structure.

We were short on time and, like in Toledo, could see only the most important sites. Armed with a map, we directed our feet towards the other side of town, a mere 20 minutes walk to visit the Alcázar (citadel). Hidden behind gates and a wonderful garden, we couldn’t see it until we were fairly close to it. What a delight! It looks like a Walt Disney castle with towers and turrets and a moat. The difference was that it was a “working” citadel and palace until the late 19th Century. Built in the 11th Century, it was a royal residence in the Middle Ages. As time and need went, the residents added rooms and towers. It became a state prison in the 18th Century. In 1882, large parts of it were consumed by fire. It was reconstructed between 1882 and 1896.

Having visited citadels and castles before (some Scottish ones come to mind) we expected little: a few miserly tapestries, a couple of swords if we were lucky, and pervasive dampness. We were in for a great surprise. The castle reconstruction was faithful to its original in a lot of ways. The added rooms were restored with azulejos (painted tiles), stained glass windows, rich tapestries to ward off the cold and damp, masterful paintings, and dazzling ceilings, six in total, the next more impressive than the last.

We also climbed the 156 steps of the tower, which gave us views of the Cathedral (our next stop) rising above the rooftops around it, as well as the countryside. Maybe due to the season or the abnormally dry weather, the country appeared seared, a moon-like terrain of grey dust. Still, I would like to see the fields in June, when everything is new and green. We’ve been in Madrid and the surrounding areas for almost 40 days and we had one day of rain. One wonders.

After a very satisfying visit to the Alcázar, we went back up the hill to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral. Its exterior is, to my mind, more appealing than the cathedral in Toledo, although it is less massive. Construction began in 1525 and was completed in 1768. Its stained glass windows are Flemish, with all the beautiful reds and blues and yellows that were produced at the time. In the centre is a large, gated choir that still has its stalls and is dominated by two massive 18th Century Baroque organs.

The walls and apse are lined with twenty chapels, and in almost all of them you find the immense altarpieces the Spanish seem to love so much. They’re mostly carved in oak or pine, a smorgasbord of gilded curves, filigrees, niches, and crosses, obscure paintings up to the roof of the chapel and plaster renderings of Jesus, Mary, angels, saints, and bishops, it’s a jaw-dropping mix.

After the elegant Basilicas of Rome, the majestic chapels and the starkly beautiful Oratories of Palermo, or the art deco paintings of Prague’s Vysherad, I can’t understand gilding everything. Instead of leading me to search for the divine in the elevated art dedicated to uplifting, if not my faith, at least my unbound admiration, I have to blink to tamp down on the glitter. Of course, I’m a total ignoramus when it comes to Spanish religious art and I probably sound like one. All I can say is that walking into those two churches was quite an experience.

And we didn’t have more time, although there is much more to see in Segovia than those three monuments. I’d like to come back one day and visit it properly. In terms of town, Segovia is much smaller than Toledo and more straightforward – they actually have straight streets. Not many, grant you, but some. Not the case for Toledo.

I can’t decide which town I liked best. They both have their charm, and are equally impressive. All I can say if that visiting one doesn’t mean you’ve seen the other. There may be some similarities but that’s all they are. What the heck. If we come back, we’ll have to do both again (and those who know me know it’s a distinct possibility).

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Toledo

Although there’s still many things to see and do in Madrid, we decided to go further afield to Toledo. The trip is only 30 minutes by a fast train and the town is an easy twenty minutes walk – if you count going uphill easy.

Like most medieval town, Toledo was built on a steep hill that gave its citizens a surrounding view of the countryside and the Tagus River below, and guarded against invasions. Toledo, like many old European cities, was influenced by three cultures: Christians, Muslims and Jews, although you can also find remnants of the Romans and the Visigoths, who also resided on that hill, throughout the town. Once the Romans were installed, it was taken over by the Visigoth, and conquered by the Moors in 711 AD. To this day, Roman wells, baths and pipes are still used in the town and Mujédan (Muslims who did not convert to Catholicism and still lived within the walls) architecture is visible in many of the churches and synagogues.

Toledo was the capital of Spain until it was moved to Madrid. In the 17th Century, Toledo was a centre for literacy and writing and many illustrious citizens had their libraries there. After Alfonso VI of Castile conquered it from the Moors, Toledo remained a centre for learning and culture. Many members of the Jewish and Muslim communities translated texts for the Spanish from their own language into Castilian, which meant that all the knowledge contained in the Toledo libraries was made available to the Europe of the time. The painter El Greco was born and died there.

Toledo’s history is extensive and colourful, and the result is a labyrinthine city punctuated with Gothic churches, Jewish synagogues and many museums, convents and monasteries.

One of the most resplendent of these monuments is the Cathedral in the centre of town, rising above the rooftops surrounding it. It was built on the site of a 7th Century Visigoth church and the city Synagogue, and one of the reasons for its strange shape (a cross with many sprawling chapels sprouting from it). It took almost 300 years to build, and certainly spanned three centuries: the construction began in 1226 and was completed in 1493. Because of that span in time, many architectural styles fight for supremacy. The exterior is French Gothic while Gothic, Mujédar and Baroque styles adorn the interior.

I have never seen such a church before (you’ll have to excuse the superlatives that will follow). Purported to be the largest in Europe and the Spanish “opus magnum,”, it goes on forever in all directions. It measures 120 metres (390 ft) long by 59 metres (146 ft) wide. There are at least four massive organs some of their pipes jutting horizontally and forward as if to mimic the trumpets the angels used to warn of the sacred as they descended to Earth. At the centre of the church are two imposing “rooms” facing each other. They are each encased in a magnificent screen of stone, which act as gates.

In one, the Chapel of the Sepulchre has a monumental, five-storey high “reredos” (an altarpiece behind the altar that sits on the floor and rises toward the ceiling.) It is an extremely florid, gilded, piece that recounts, in vivid colours in separate niches, the life of Christ. All around are delicate filigrees of balusters, spires, and other things I don’t know the name of, by Joan Peti. This masterwork of five continuous panels took 17 years to create and required the cooperation of architects, gilding masters, sculptors and painters.

In the other “room” is the Choir, if not as impressive as the chapel, at least of jaw-dropping complexity. Carved saints line three sides of the choir above the benches for the singing monks. Every seat has a different wooden sculpted underseat and the armrests are also carved from a nearly-black wood.

Outside the Chapel at the back of the reredos, and strikingly different with its Baroque ornamentation, is an altarpiece by Narciso Tomé. Opposite it and in the dome you find an oculus with saints and angels looking down on the sculpture.

In the Sacristy are other treasures: fifteen paintings by El Greco, including one of his last, The Assumption, painted in 1613 and still in its original altarpiece.

We spent so much time in the Cathedral, we barely had time to see anything else. We got lost –and found, and lost again– among the streets, alleys and lanes that could barely fit a donkey and often ended in stairs. For some reason, we always ended going up them rather than down. We did find a local restaurant serving delicious tapas away from the tourist throng. I guess there are advantages to getting lost.

If we ever come back to Spain we intend to visit Toledo again to steep in the Medieval atmosphere and to marvel at the geniuses of the time who were able to create such magnificence.

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Madrid’s Museo Naval

Humbly situated near the Prado, Madrid’s Naval Museum barely stands a chance against the reputation and grandeur of its neighbour. It does make an effort, boldly claiming its space in large letters on its facade. Personally, I preferred the copper sign above its door.

Granted, the Naval Museum can’t compete with its other, more well-known brethren. However, for those who will set foot inside its walls, they will find a fantastic collection – over 10,700 of items– of scale models of ships and frigates from Columbus’s times on as well as original figureheads, instruments, maps and plans. The most interesting artifact is the original of a map, drawn by Juan de la Cosa in 1500 that shows, for the first time, America and other geographical discoveries made between 1492 and 1500. It is also the first time Africa was drawn in the north-south direction.

A large painting, titled “First Homage to Christopher Columbus,” begins the chronological order of the museum’s rooms, which end with contemporary vessels. The voyage through time makes imminent sense. As you move through the rooms, you get a sense of how Spain became one of the strongest powers in the world. You see paintings depicting hundred of naval vessels in a line, warring at sea. As impressive as it was, all I could think was how much wood had been used, how many forests decimated across Europe – Portuguese, English, Spanish monarchs pushing world supremacy over the waters and systematically razing entire ecosystems, in their own land and in those they conquered. That thought aside, the naval architects of the time were amazingly able, especially with the tools they used to design them and build them. Many ships models in the museums were used as architectural templates for the construction of the Spanish Armada, so they are infinitely detailed and everything is to scale. They were definitely a work of art in themselves.

So, too, the navigators of that time were able. With only a few landmarks, the feel of the sea and its currents and the direction of the wind, they could sail across oceans and find themselves where they wanted to go. Some of them started with only a few rudimentary tools, precursors of the sextant, navigating by using the sun, the stars, and the speed of their vessels. They had to be passionate and fearless adventurers, as well as leaders, to “go where no one has gone before,” to use a Star Trek analogy.

The museum also walks us through the advances of technology that not only facilitated sea voyages but made killing over and under the waters easier. It is a fascinating –and maybe a bit ghoulish– reminder that, regardless of the times, the human race will seek ways of defending itself but also ways of controlling others.

There were very few people in the museum so we could take a leisurely tour of the exhibits. We were surprised that we’d spent nearly four hours in there. This is one of the reasons we like to plan long visits: we can discover treasures that few know about and feel that we have begun to know the people who live in the country we are visiting a little more. Museums like these speak of history, of identity, of culture. It’s always a thrill to find that we’ve unearthed a little bit of it.

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Campo del Moro

It’s easy to combine a visit to the Templo de Debod with a stroll in the Parque del Oeste and get a photo opportunity to snap the Palacio Real with the Catedral de la Almudena in the background. The temple, set over a pond, is genuine; built in the 2nd Century BC, it was given to Spain by the Egyptian government as a token of appreciation for the Spanish engineers who helped save ancient monuments from floodwaters while the Aswan Dam was being built on the River Nile. The park itself is landscaped and quiet, with many benches. It marks the contrast with the busy, noisy Plaza de Espaňa, which looks on to Gran Vía and its incessant traffic. The plaza boasts an obelisk, as an homage to Cervantez, with bronze statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza on their respective mounts, moving toward another adventure.

But another park offers, to my mind, a more grandiose view than the Parque del Oeste: the Campo del Moro (Field of the Moor). On the edges of the Rio Manzanares, the park rises until it reaches the back of the Palacio Real. The park earned its name from history: in 1109, the Moorish Army, led by Ali ben Yusuf, set up camp there. Later on, it was used for jousts by Christian knights.

As a park it was originally laid out in the 19th Century, under the aegis of Queen Maria Cristina, and was designed according to the norms of English gardens of the time, which promoted nature as romantic. It has winding paths through thick woodland, and the heat of the day disappears there. It doesn’t take a lot of luck to happen upon a flock of peacocks, for which the park is known. You can also find the bright green, squawking, Quaker parrots, mourning doves, and the black blue and white magpie.

What the park offers more than any other if the most fabulous view of the Palacio Real. In the center of the park, rising steadily towards this brilliant white facade, is a long lane of grass, dotted with flowers and fountains.

And if, after all this tranquillity and beauty, youre in need of stimulation, right beside the park is the Principe Pío train station and a huge, modern shopping center (they even have a McDonald’s and a Burger King). No quaint shops for tourists there: think more Bayshore than Byward Market.

That’s in part what I find so thrilling about Madrid: it’s a bustling, modern city that doesn’t cling to its heritage but respects what has been handed it down the years.

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Madrid’s Art Museums

Madrid has many art museums, and the most well-known is of course the Prado, which has one of the most important collection of paintings in the world. It possesses works from the two most influential geniuses of universal painting, Velázquez and Goya. It also houses other seminal paintings from the 12th to the 19th Century (Rubens,el Greco, Bosch, Ribera,Titian, Fra Angelico, to mention a few) in a building that was designed by Juan de Villanueva and commissioned by Carlos III; it opened as a museum in 1819.
While at least one visit is de rigueur, the Prado is daunting, even for someone who is in Madrid for more than a few days. There are so many works, spread over three floors and a basement, that it’s difficult to take everything in. When you limit yourself to the recommended works, you’re bound to be frustrated by all the magnificent art you’re passing by. Over four days, we spent more than 12 hours in the Prado and feel that we barely scratched the surface.
Yet, when you’ve spent some time in the museum, you realize that the collection is somewhat unbalanced. The museum has over 114 paintings by Goya, but only one by da Vinci and Caravaggio. Ironically, you’ll find the Mona Lisa among the works displayed. She’s a copy, of course, sanctioned by da Vinci and probably painted at the same time: she has the same mysterious smile but doesn’t hide between bulletproof glass like the real Mona Lisa in the Louvres. Talk about name-dropping.
Like many museums in Europe, the Prado’s inventory came from collectors – mainly the aristocracy, including various kings over the years. These collectors did not build their collection with variety in mind; instead, they found one or two artists they liked and proceeded to amass, through buying or commissioning, the works of those artists. Hence a collection heavily skewed toward the Spanish artists.

In the second of the three important museums of Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, you can find the amazing collection of the family of the same name, which was donated to the State and is now housed in the beautiful palacio de Villahermosa. The collection is much more varied, including American painters of the 19th century. Because the Baron and his son wanted their collection to be as complete an illustration of Western art as possible, you can find a greater variety of works, from Brueghel the Elder to Gauguin, and Edward Hopper to Picasso. You can find Impressionists, Expressionists, Realists, even Pop Art. The collection is organised chronologically into three well-lit floors.
Although it doesn’t have the prestige of the Prado, its contents were very impressive, and when I left I had the feeling that I’d taken a beautiful voyage through the centuries.

Unlike any of the two museums described above, the Reina Sofía is an ode to modern and contemporary art. Its claim to fame is Guernica, Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Basque country village in northern Spain in 1936. It’s a huge painting (11 feet high x 25 feet wide) and has its own room. However, the museum has much more to offer than one, albeit famous, painting. The museum is a sprawling structure that used to be the Hospital de San Carlos and has 23 rooms that show off paintings and sculpture of the 20th Century. Artists such as Picasso, in his early works, Solana, Juan Grís, Miró and Dali are well-represented. The museum houses also 21st Century temporary exhibitions and even displays works from the troisième art (third art): many films of the mid-twentieth Century are projected on the walls, sometimes without sound.
This museum may be more difficult to take in than the two others, but I found it fascinating, if only as an other cog in the evolution of art through the centuries. Art between the two world wars was dark and disturbing. Post WWII, it was even more so, and artists sought to express their anger, befuddlement, or despair through sometimes obscure, misshapen or basic works. These sentiments continue to this day, reminding us that the times of celebrating God, mythology, nature, etc., are past. When it comes to great art, artists must seek a different way of expressing what it is to live in this century.

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