Terrific Toledo

Where Don Quixote and El Greco Dominate

(The beautiful city of Toledo on the River Tagus)

Our drive to Toledo took us through the very heartland of Spain into Castilla-La-Mancha, made famous by Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote that featured the adventures of the dreamy knight and his paunchy sidekick Sancho Panza (below).



The Spanish plains are dry, arid and dusty but have been fabulously well irrigated to grow purple crocus that produces Spain’s valuable condiment, saffron. Olive groves are another key crop in the region and animal rearing is equally evident. Close to the town of Consuegra, we hit the Tourist Route that takes Cervantes’ fans into the region made familiar by the windmills over which Quixote tossed his proverbial hat. Reminiscences of the novel are seen in the few inns and tabernas we passed that are named after the novels’ characters.

Toledo is picturesquely sited high on the hills above the Tagus River that flows regally through the medieval town. Driving though the town, you soon understand why the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation has placed the entire city under its protection for indeed it is a living museum. Every building is significant, every stone is historic, every pebble tells a story. Muslim, Jewish and Christian influences co-exist in this unique and graceful city for the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors made this settlement their home, each adding their own imprint to create a mosaic of pluralism and cultural diversity. We did not have the time to linger in this lovely town, but we did spend a whole afternoon there focusing on its three main attractions.

Walking Toledo’s toy town like streets can be a frustrating business for everything is an uphill climb. Almost all the streets look the same, bordered by red brick walls and lined by souvenirs shops. When we did arrive at the Iglesia de Santo Tome (The Church of St. Thomas), we found it mobbed by tourist groups, all eagerly viewing El Greco’s most famous religious painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz which is on the right hand side at the main entrance. This painting features the miracle that occured at the burial of the Count who was the church’s main patron and a great humanist. St. Steven and St. Augustine are said to have come down from heaven to place the Count themselves in his crypt which lies just below the painting in a stone sarcophagus. This huge canvas contains a self-portrait of the artist as well one of his son whom he considered to be his finest “work”. There are also portraits of Cervantes and several senior prelates of the church. As a religious work, it is a showcase for El Greco’s marvelous talent and sensitivity. No wonder the painting has never been moved from this venue.

Our next stop was Toledo’s colossal Cathedral whose spires rise high above the city and are easily visible as one approaches it. Work on this gothic edifice began in 1226 and spanned three centuries. It was mind boggling for us to come to terms with the fact that these churches were completed long after the donors who paid for their construction were alive. This cathedral’s sacristy is crammed with El Greco paintings for the artist made Toledo his home in the 16the century—almost all the apostles’ portraits are here as are other silver and gold relics and sacred objects. I found the Baroque altarpiece by Narciso Tome made of marble, jasper and bronze the most stunning piece of work in a space that was distinctive for its Gothic design elements.

Taking a break for some cooling sangria in a street side café, we finally made our way to the Sinagoga del Transito, which is notable for its mujedar interior design despite its deceptively humble façade. It was built in the 14th century by Samuel Ha-Levi, when Jews were allowed to live peaceably in Spain under Moorish rule. The synagogue, one of only two in all of Spain blended so many interesting design features—Islamic, Gothic and Hebraic—and had the added advantage of providing the visitor with a Sephardic Museum that documented the lives of Spanish or Sephardic Jews before they were driven out of Spain by the Catholic Rulers.

Our rambles done, we returned to our car for our final drive to Madrid from where we boarded our flight back home to the States at the end of ten incredible days.

Bueno Viajes!


Home of Europe’s Largest Gothic Cathedral

Next stop: The Andalucian City of Seville is noted for its Cathedral and the bitter rind of its oranges that seem to grow wild on miniature trees everywhere you turn. After parking our car, we went out in search of dinner, only to find ourselves in the main square with the massive Gothic Cathedral of Seville staring us in the face. Superbly illuminated, the cathedral glowed with a wondrous light. The plaza that holds the third largest Cathedral in the world, built in 1410, still attracted stragglers out for an evening meal. A trio of musicians, formally clad in black tie and tails, played softly stirring classical music that transformed the whole place into a magical setting.

But Llew was hungry and did not wish to lose time that could be spent eating a good meal. We chose La Cueva, a restaurant in the former Jewish quarter called the Barrio Santa Cruz. Like all Spanish spaces that are frozen in time, Santa Cruz is a complicated network of narrow cobbled streets and alleys full of souvenir shops, restaurants and tapas bars. Le Cueva Restaurant was located on Calle Rodrigo Caro in a very pretty patio and was decorated in typical Spanish colonial style with ceramic pots and plates hanging on the walls, the heads of bulls stuffed and mounted on walls, festive costumes of the renowned matadors framed as wall art. There were wooden chairs painted quaintly with faiance designs and patterns, checkered tablecloths, antique Spanish religious statuary, and lovely ceramic plates and pitchers to hold our food. One could also choose to sit outside in a charming orange grove that was softly lit by wrought-iron lanterns. We decided to eat an assorted platter of Spanish sausages as our first course (13 euros). These arrived promptly—Serrano ham, cured in the cold mountain air (serre) is a national staple, a variety of smoked sausages, liverwurst and Spain’s famous manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese produced on the flat plains of Castille La Mancha, hence its name. Llew chose a Caldera or Lamb Stew while I went for the Frito Mixto, a plate of assorted fried fish, lightly dipped in batter and fried to a crisp (12 euros each). It reminded me very much of the fried fish my mother serves back home in India. A pitcher of icy cold sangria with bits of apple and oranges floating in it (8 euros) made a very interesting drink with which to enjoy our meal. A noisy group of middle-aged French tourists at an accompanying table brought much life and vitality to the atmosphere while we savored our Spanish repast. Then, replete, we picked out way through the hushed quietness of the streets to get to our Bed and Breakfast called Naranjo on Calle San Roque. Llew was afraid that there would be no one to let us in at that late hour of night (it was past 10 pm), but the reception area was buzzing with activity and we settled down comfortably for the night.

Naranjo provided a good Continental breakfast which allowed us to fill up before beginning our exploration of the city. Walking through the area called El Arenal, we passed right by the impressive Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza (left), Seville’s 18th century bull-ring, one of Spain’s oldest, with its Baroque white and ochre façade and the staring black eyes of a bull painted at the entrance. Because bull-fighting season doesn’t open until June, the arena was open only for guided tours but we chose to pass on and head for the Cathedral instead. Just before we turned off a narrow street to find the Cathedral, we spied the Moorish Torre del Oro or Golden Tower built in the 13th century to protect the port of Seville. The Cathedral, when we did get to it, after a slow stroll, looked completely different from the way it had done the previous night. Gone was the magic and the atmosphere of religious sanctity. Tourists milled around, going about the serious business of covering all the items on their agenda. We bought a few souvenirs and believing that we had to wait until 11 am. when the Cathedral would open to visitors, we attempted to kill time by browsing through the shops. It was at that point that we discovered some people entering the cathedral through the side doors and after inquiring of one of the guards, we were told that we were free to enter.

Upon arriving inside Seville Cathedral (below left), we found ourselves awash in the solemn tones of Gregorian chants and to our enormous delight, we saw that a High mass was being said at that very moment in Latin by the highest prelates of the Seville church community. How marvelous it was to listen to the organ and to the choir as they sang the Latin mass, to hear the main celebrant bless us frequently by uttering Dominusco Bisco. Only a smattering of people were actually hearing mass, but we joined in and received Communion, just thrilled to be in the presence of so much sanctity.

The mass was said at the main altar or the Capilla Mayor that was stunning to say the very least, the Retablo Mayor or altar decoration featuring over 1000 heavily gilded figures from the Christian pantheon. Santa Maria de la Sede, the Cathedral’s patron saint was carved into the main niche in the altar holding the Christ Child in her arms. The fragrance of incense floated about the stupendously large Cathedral and rose up to the fan vaulted ceiling with its intricate stone carvings. Behind us, a group of younger priests attended to other rituals in the choir hall. Monumental iron grilles separated the congregation from the altar where the con-celebrated mass was being offered. We felt truly blessed by the unexpected pleasure of getting to hear such an unusual mass and were informed later that the High Gregorian Latin mass is said every single day at 10 am in the Cathedral—which is why it is closed to tourists with their distracting cameras at that time.

On our right, we could see the handsome memorial to Christopher Columbus whose disputed remains are said to be contained in a casket hauled up by four pall-bearers representing the four houses of Castille, Leon, Navarre and Aragon. The elaboration of this monument, notwithstanding, there exists the common belief that Columbus’ true remains are in the Dominican Republic while the casket in the Seville Cathedral contains the remains of his son Hernando. The cathedral is also home to a large number of religious paintings by Spanish Masters such as Goya and Zurbaran.

            As the morning wore on, more and more tourists congregated in this square, some venturing to climb the several hundred steps into the bell-tower or Giralda (pronounced Hiralda–left) which was first built as the minaret of a mosque in 1198. As the Cathedral was constructed on the same site, the minaret was transformed gradually over the centuries to become ultimately the Cathedral’s Christian bell-tower with a large weather-vane (in Spanish Giraldillo) giving the tower its name. Since we had a busy day ahead of us, we chose not to climb the tower, but we did stroll close by to the Reales Alcazares or Royal Residence, a lavish palace that has served Spain’s monarchy for centuries.

            Very similar in conception and form to the Al-Hambra Palace, the Reales Alcazares  (right) was the result of an order given by Pedro I in 1364 to start the construction of a royal residence within the palaces that had been built by the city’s Almohad (Muslim) rulers. Local artisans responded enthusiastically and within two years, they arrived from Granada and Toledo to create a nest of patios, rooms and gardens in mujedar design. The similarity in the delicacy of the stucco and plaster work with the Al-Hambra Palace is notable immediately as is the abundant use of ceramic tile.

It was from this Seville residence that Isabel dispatched her navigators to explore the New World, for it was in the Casa de la Contratacion (left) that they received their orders. Accordingly the room is decorated with seafaring motifs. As in other Moorish architectural gems, gardens play a dominant role in the layout. The central feature of each patio is a fountain from which tumbling water creates an aural as well as a visual sensation. The majesty of these dwellings can have a very seductive hold upon the visitor and it difficult to tear oneself away from the uniqueness of the design. But we decided to leave and explore the city of Seville somewhat more thoroughly.

On a beautifully stimulating day in spring, we made out way back to the banks of the Guadalquivir river (left), armed with chocolate Popsicles made by Magnum called Double Chocolate. In all of these cities, the weather was so completely hospitable to us that most times we wore only a very light jacket. As we enjoyed the colorful vista of Sevilla’s apartment buildings whose pastel exteriors gave them a very pleasing appearance, we realized how much we had lucked out with the weather for it hadn’t rained once since we had first begun our travels. We enjoyed Seville as much as we had Madrid. Spain’s major cities are superbly laid out and very sensitive of the needs of tourists and visitors. So it was with much delight that we anticipated our arrival, later that afternoon, in the ancient Moorish city of Cordoba.

Bon Voyage!


Memories of Madrid

(In the Parque Bueno Retiro in Madrid)

Taking a red eye flight into Europe from New York City means arriving early in the morning and taking a nap and rest as soon as we check into our hotel. In Madrid, ours was Hotel Marlasca, situated right in the heart of the busy Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s Times Square, and boasting, to our delight, French windows that led out to our own little private wrought-iron grilled balcony. .

When we did set out to explore Old Madrid, an hour later, on foot, armed with our trusted Eyewitness Travel Guide, we found ourselves warming instantly to a city that is a fascinating combination of ancient and modern elements. Tio Pepe’s huge billboard advertising Spain’s famous sherry looked down upon the bustling Sol square where shops and offices intersected narrow streets and historic buildings stood steeped in memories of its Bourbon past.

Calle de Postas took us down a winding route to the massive Plaza Mayor (left), Madrid’s best-known public square that has seen bull-fights, parades, inquisitions and executions within its four impressive walls. The equestrian statue of Felipe III is central to the square among whose buildings the Casa de la Panaderia (Bakery) was most striking for its allegorical painted frescoes. Plaza Provincia led us to the tiny, narrow alleyways of the inner city where we were continually struck by their charming quaintness. Strolling past the Arc of Cuchilleros, we felt as if we were back in medieval times and when we reached Plaza de la Villa with its brick buildings, central sculpture, arched bridge connecting two official buildings and beds of cheery primroses, we were certain we had strayed into the pages of history.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Calle Mayor ended where the imposing domes and spires of the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Almudena (left) began. Right opposite, just beyond the massive Plaza de la Armeria, the regal façade of the Palacio Real (below left), Madrid’s Royal Palace, hinted tantalizingly of the treasures stored within.

Not surprisingly, we decided to take the audio guided tour of this magnificent monument to Spain’s monarchical history (Euros 8 plus 2 Euros each for the audio guide) and spent the next couple of hours wandering at will through rooms resplendent with the wealth and artistry of the ages. From the very first climb up the royal stairway, decorated with a stunning Rococco ceiling fresco by Giaquinto to the end, when we visited the Royal Pharmacy, chocful of Talavera pottery storage jars, glass bottles, urns and containers, herb drawers, etc. that told stories of royal ailments and their cures, we were fascinated.

Each room was more breathtaking than the next and as we ventured through them and listened to the commentary, we realized how wealthy this imperial power once was and how proud it became of its global significance. Indeed the sun never set on the Spanish empire and evidence of its glory was all over the walls, ceilings, furniture, mirrors, clocks, paintings and tapestries that adorned the royal lodgings. My favorite rooms were the Porcelain Room covered entirely in faiancé made in the Buen Retiro porcelain factory and the Gasparini Rooms named after its Neopolitan designer who decorated it with elaborate chinoiserie. Back out on the plaza’s balconies, we enjoyed distant views of El Escorial, another royal palace located an hour away from the city.

But it was time to rest our weary feet and we paused in the gardens of the Plaza de Oriente, decorated with innumerable marble sculptures, while listening to a stirring rendition of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca played by a street side accordionist. Then strolling past the Teatro Real (Royal Theater), we arrived on Calle de Arenal, known for its Chocolateria San Gines, an old establishment that still serves the best version of Spain’s fast-disappearing national snack—chocolate and churros. We plonked down at old-fashioned marble topped tables to enjoy the treat (a steal at 3 Euros) and dunked our churros (deep-fried sticks of dough) fondue-style into the sauce-like hot chocolate as we saw the local Madrillenos do.

Our evening ended with a visit to Madrid’s Museum of Modern Art (more about that later) which left us deeply moved but quite exhausted. Fortunately, the Museum was open till 9 pm that evening, leaving us ample time to browse through its highlights at our leisure. By this time, having covered more than we expected on our first day in Madrid, we made our way back to our hotel, pausing only for dinner at La Truscha Restaurant near Plaza Santa Ana for wonderful grilled trout stuffed with Serrano ham and Chicken grilled with Garlic after consuming deliciously simple tapas—smoked ham and pickled manzilla olives. I opted also for the house wine, a white Valdapenas, that was surprisingly good and surprisingly cheap—wine is often cheaper than soft drinks in Spanish restaurants.

Walking the Art Trail:

The hot chocolate and churros had whetted our appetites for more sightseeing the previous evening.  Regenerated, we found our second wind and hopping on to the subway at Sol tube station, we tunneled our way to Atocha, Madrid’s busy railway hub, in order to walk towards the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid’s Museum of Modern Art, which has two rather incongruous glass elevators plying along its exterior in the same way as Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidour does. Since it is possible to purchase a discounted ticket (12 Euros) that gives the visitor entry into three of Madrid’s main museums (the Reina Sofia, the Prado and the Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza), all conveniently located within a short walk of each other on the Paseo del Prado, we bought our tickets upon entering this Museum of Modern Art.

Picasso’s Guernica, the twentieth century’s most famous single work, is the biggest attraction in this museum and we headed straight for it, never expecting that this stark black and white canvas would have such a moving impact upon us. As we stared at the horrors of war depicted so eloquently by the Father of Modern Art, we were stunned into silence. This painting, a protest against the Spanish Civil War, was completed in 1937. Picasso found his inspiration in the 1936 mass destruction of the border Basque town of Guernika-Lumo by German pilots flying for the Nationalist air force led by General Franco who went on to hold Spain under a dictatorial regime until 1975. Picasso stipulated in his will that the painting should not be returned to Spain until the country became democratic. It arrived in Madrid’s Prado Museum in 1981 and was moved to its present location in 1992.In this work, men and animals, caught by the surprise attack, raise their eyes heavenwards as if seeking a reason for the madness. Horses rear upon their hooves, a bull bellows in agony, women with babes in arms stare upwards emptily, their arms akimbo. I have waited at least twenty-five years to see this painting, having first heard of it as an undergraduate in college, and I was deeply moved by its deafening silence. Having seen this work, we moved on to the Surrealist canvases of Salvador Dali that are also plentifully available here and to the abstract artistry of Joan Miro.

The next day saw us continue to walk the Art Trail, for Madrid is superbly endowed with fine art museums. We strolled down Calle des Huertas, past the Neo-Classical façade of the Teatro Espagnol, Madrid’s public theater, that has been home to such literary giants as Lope de Vega and Garcia Lorca. The sidewalk was littered with embedded quotations from the work of Spain’s best-known writers such as Cervantes who lived just around the corner, and as we slowly read their lines, we arrived at the Paseo del Prado and saw the museum standing solidly before us.

(Outside the Prado is a large sculpture of Goya)

A rather unassuming building, the Prado contains one of the world’s most enviable art collections procured through the marriages of the Spanish monarchs with some of Europe’s most eligible princesses, most of whom brought fine art into the country as part of their dowries. Towering sculptures of Goya and Velasquez, two of Spain’s most celebrated artists, decorate the two opposite entrances of the museum. I was so happy to be in the Prado, having waited for this moment for so many years, that my excitement was palpable. Stuffed to the rafters with Old Masters, the Prado’s nooks and crannies seem to conceal the ghosts of these artists who haunt it at every awesome turn.

Velasquez’s Las Meninas  (left) is the biggest draw and art lovers from all over the world congregate with reverence in front of this canvas that inspired so many artists through the ages and was an obsession for Picasso. Featuring the visit of the Infanta Margherita to Velasquez’s studio while her parents, the king and queen, were being painted by him, this canvas features multiple portraits in tightly composed groups. Indeed, the canvas also contains a self-portrait of the artist and is an amazing play of light, shadows and scale.

The Prado boasts many other works by Velasquez and the court painter Goya who followed him a century later. Goya’s famous The Third of May (seen at left, which is said to have influenced Picasso’s Guernica) is a major attraction as are his Nude Maya and Clothed Maya and his many portraits of royalty. The third artist whose work features prominently in the Prado is Domenikos Theotocopoulos, simply “The Greek” or “El Greco” to the Spaniards among whom he made his home in Toledo, just a short way from Madrid. El Greco specialized in religious paintings and there are a number of deeply stirring ones in the Prado, featuring his stylized dark, brooding, elongated faces and limited color palate. We were so taken by all these treasures that we could barely bring ourselves to stop for lunch. When compelled to do so, simply because our feet were killing us, we settled for a cafeteria meal of Beef Ragout and a hearty Spinach Soup with Chickpeas, both very satisfying indeed and very well priced.

The afternoon passed swiftly before us as we drank in the phenomenal talents of Rubens and Tintoretto, Caravaggion and Fra Angelico, Jose de Ribera and Albrecht Durer. Two of my all-time favorite paintings are in the Prado: The Immaculate Conception by Murillo which I have seen in ‘holy pictures’ since I was a little girl and The Deposition of Christ (c. 1430) by Rogier van der Weyden whose use of perspective is so astonishing that the viewer is fooled into thinking the canvas is three-dimensional. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthy Delights which inspired most Surrealist artists at one time or another is also at the Prado. I was just thrilled to be in the presence of all these world-famous works, but we decided to take a break after spending almost the entire day in this museum.

Sundaes in colossal coupes blended for us the pleasures of coffee, chocolate and vanilla ice-creams with amaretto liqueur at VIPS, a chain of fast food eateries in Spain, where we cooled our heels and our palates and found the enthusiasm to visit the Parque del Bueno Retiro, located just behind the Prado (below).

This expanse, Madrid’s Central Park, enticed us with its sprawling green lawns, towering topiaries and marble statuary. It was too early for flowers but some spring plantings were already in evidence. We found a quiet parapet on the periphery of the pleasure lake where rowboats were plying just across from the half-moon colonnade in front of which an equestrian statue of Alfonso XII is mounted. Because Llew and I always look for some madcap thing to do to make our travels overseas memorable, we spied the perfect opportunity on a tall pedestal in the park that was, astonishingly, devoid of a sculpture. With Llew’s help, I mounted the pedestal, then giggling, half-concealed myself in the fluffy branches of a “brocolli-shaped” tree and posed while Llew took my picture. It is crazy spontaneous moments like these that bring levity to our travel memories and we grab them whenever we can.

But Madrid’s third museum of fine art, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, still remained unexplored and having rested sufficiently in Madrid’s largest park, we walked to the museum’s entrance, making use of the third stub on our joint ticket. Though we were left with very little time to explore this magnificent private collection of 800 paintings, the acquisition of two men—Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich–we managed to see its highlights. Picasso’s early work, Harlequin with Mirror (1923) was a far cry indeed from his Guernica of 1937. Far more realistic than his later abstract work, the painting was a good example of his Blue Period. Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room (1931) was a very poignant portrayal of 20th century isolation while Francisco de Zurbaran’s portrait of St. Casilda was astounding in the detail to be found on her splendid robe.

Madrid’s museums are a treat for the eye and the soul. The art-lover in me was fully enthralled on this trip and though we were often tired, our appetites were never completely sated. We could have spent days devoring these art works alone, but we’re grateful that careful planning and research allowed us to see most of the world’s greatest works of art as held in Madrid in just two days. It would have been a shame indeed to have made it to Madrid and to have missed Titian’s work on St. Jerome in the Wilderness, or Goya’s Saturn Devoring his Son or Rubens’ The Three Graces. Most visitors talk about feeling saturated after only a few hours in an art museum. Fortunately, Llew and I can go on for days and not feel sated.

Despite sightseeing fatigue, Llew and I decided to end our day by going out in search of a restaurant named La Sirena Verde on the Gran Via, the main artery that meanders its way through Madrid’s busy commercial area. This restaurant, we were assured by a professor we met on the flight into Spain, served the best Paella in Madrid and was worth searching out. Well, let’s just say we were not disappointed. While the lower level of the restaurant leaves one unimpressed, you climb the stairs and enter a very formal space indeed decorated in nautical blue. A very attentive wait staff supplied multi-lingual menus and opting for the Paella del Marisco (the Seafood Paella, 24 Euros for two persons), we enjoyed Spain’s national contribution to global gastronomy. Our meal was accompanied by a bottle of white Rioja (Cune semi-dry) which was cold and very refreshing and made a sparkling counterpoint to a meal that was just superbly flavored with saffron and spice. As night fell, we returned to Hotel Marlasca vowing to wake up early for what would be a long drive south into the heart of Moorish Spain in fascinating Anadalucia.

To follow us on the next leg of our journey through Spain, please click Gateway to Granada.

Bueno Viajes!


Gateway to Granada

(The Albaicin seen from the Al-Hambra Palace)

At some time or the other, everyone has heard Jerry Vale’s lyrics to a song he wrote entitled Granada:

Granada, I’m falling under your spell
And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell
A vantage, the world has long forgotten,
A vantage that weaves a silent magic in Granada, today……

I had personally heard them as a child growing up in Bombay where the song was popular at singing contests. Never did I dream that one day I would walk through the streets of this historic town, picking at stones to hear stories of an age when the world still remembered the splendor that was Granada. Though most tourists come to Granada to see the world-renowned Al-Hambra Palace, this ancient city has much more to offer. First occupied by the Moors who arrived in Spain from the shores of Northern Africa in the 8th century, Granada reached its fullest glory under the rule of the Muslim Nasrids from 1238 to 1492 who set out to build an awesome monument to their greatness.

Our exploration of Granada began in the main square of the Puerta Nueva where we lunched on doner kebabs wrapped in a pita—a meal that gave us our first understanding of the extent of Muslim impact in this part of Spain. The minaret-like spire of the Iglesia Santa Ana (left), a 16th century church, looked down upon the square as we decided not to waste any time in drinking in the scene spread out before us.We used the Eyewitness Travel Guide one more time to take a walking tour of the Albaicin (pronounced Al-bye-seen), the ancient Moorish district which hugs the sides of the hills opposite the Al-Hambra to create a labyrinth of cobbled streets lined by high-walled, white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs and patio-ed gardens within. Thank heavens for sturdy walking shoes which eliminated the risk of twisting an ankle on those challenging cobbles. Walking alongside the banks of the River Darro on Carrera Del Darro, we paused to take pictures of the picturesque red brick bridges and the old homes that seemed to tumble down to the river’s edge. Once inside the maze that comprises the Albaicin, one had better remain glued to a map and one’s wits—you could easily get lost and never find your way out. The eerie silence that accompanied this stroll was also rather unusual, for tucked as far away from civilization as it is, the Albaicin’s spirit is uninterrupted by blaring horns, traffic noises or street vendors.

A chance encounter with fellow-tourist Julian from Germany led us on the route back to the Mirador San Nicolas, a church square dominated by the Church of St. Nicolas, where weary strollers had congregated to take a break from their uphill climb through those stunningly evocative alleyways. The Al-Hambra lay spread out before us on the opposite bank of the Darro river, its high walls, square towers, and fairy-tale windows looming dauntingly on the mountainside. This mirador (or view point) provided stunning views of the Andalucian countryside as it lay bathed in the warming sun. Street entertainers provided interesting diversion at every turn.

Before long, we were on our way again, passing by Plaza Largo with its busy farmer’s market, noting the street signs at the corner of each tiny intersection in ceramic tile and blue calligraphy recalling the Moorish occupation of this city so many centuries ago. Every mosque in the picturesque district was converted long years ago into a church but the distinctive mujedar (Muslim) architecture as exemplified by the minaret-shaped spires, was ample evidence of the glory of the Nasrids. Then it was time for us to take the bus back up to the Al-Hambra to begin our exploration of one of the world’s most splendid monuments. We purchased audio guides for 3 Euros each and made our hurried way to the main archway of the Nasrid’s Palace for our 3.30 pm entrance into it as specified on the ticket we had purchased online before our departure for Spain (10 Euros).

The Al-Hambra was built gradually under the glorious reigns of Nasrid caliphs Ismail I, Yusuf I and Muhammed V whose love of beauty, symmetry, architectural design and embellishment were easily evident at every turn. The buildings create poetry of grace, style and imagination as seen in the uniform arches, the magical domes, the spacious patios, the slim pillars. There is beauty at every turn—in the wealth of ceramic tile used as a kind of wainscoting on every wall, laid out in complicated geometrical designs that the Spanish call azulejos (below left).

Though the materials used to build the Al-Hambra are far from gorgeous—just timber, stucco, ceramic, plaster and occasionally marble—the manner in which the decoration was visualized and implemented is nothing short of magnificent. In many ways, this style of Islamic architecture is similar to what one sees of Moghul greatness on the Indian sub-continent. For instance, the channels of water that run through the rooms, the lattice work on the windows (in timbered frames as opposed to marble ‘jallis’ in India and Pakistan), the natural air cooling devices that were built into these palaces, and the incorporation of gardens that were symbols of Paradise to these Muslim kings, are universal in most Islamic construction. But the Al-Hambra had certain other elements of interior design and decoration that I have never seen anywhere else. The appearance of what is called “macarabe” design was breathtaking.

It consists of stucco work that hangs down like stalactites from ceilings and arches (left) and in domes to form an intricate honeycomb pattern that is simply mind boggling. I took scores of pictures to try and capture this artistry. All over the walls, scripture from the Koran was sculpted in abundance. Geometric forms, flowers and fruits, especially the motif of the pomegranate (Granada in Arabic means “Land of the Pomegranate”) appeared in varied guises through cupolas and arches, in towering minarets and in pillars. Everywhere the sensuousness of the Islamic aesthetic overwhelmed the eye. The Patio de los Leones (The Patio of the Lions) was distinctive for the central marble fountain encircled by carved lions (below).

Paintings on leather panels hugged the walls of the rooms, many being refurbished for preservation. The use of reflecting pools added more excitement to the design as was the frequent presence of water. For Islam, a religion that originated in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Paradise is always associated with the abundant availability of water—hence the fountains, gardens, etc. that are the epitome of Moorish landscape design.

As we left the main buildings of the Al-Hambra (already very tired indeed) to saunter at will through the leafy arbors and canopied avenues of the Generalife (pronounced Henera-lee-fay), the private estate gardens of the Nasrid rulers, I could not help but feel a pang for the passing away of so grand an epoch. The facile surrender of his kingdom by Boabdil, last of the Nasrid rulers, to the fanatic Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castille in 1492 not only put paid to Muslim presence and power in Andalucia but led to the systematic destruction of so many of the Moors’ most highly prized monuments. Fortunately, better sense prevailed in regards to the Al-Hambra, for instead of destroying this splendid place, the Catholic rulers decided to make it their own base, adding a chapel in order to consecrate the space as holy ground. Indeed, the Al-Hambra Palace is soaked in history. It was here that Ferdinand and Isabel received a young Genoan named Cristobal Colon who sold them the idea of reaching the Indies by sailing westwards. Thus, it was here that the idea of a Spanish Empire was conceived.

A walk down a footpath that connects the Al-Hambra to its surrounding gardens leads one to the Generalife, that are some of the best-known gardens in the world. Though we were too early in season to enjoy the magnificence of its flowers and the soft scents of jasmine that perfume the night air in the spring and summer, we still had enough of an opportunity to appreciate the genius that created these arcades and bowers for the sensual enjoyment of nature. Though the word ‘Generalife’ has many meanings, the most commonly accepted is said to derive from the Arabic Yannat al Arif or the “Garden of Lofty Paradise”.

Begun in the 13th century, they have been continually modified over the centuries. An army of gardeners and landscape artists work on the space even today to keep it in the glorious array of its ancient roots. One meanders peacefully and sensitively through the flower-beds and rectangular pools, pausing frequently to appreciate the blend of architectural and natural elements in these special environs. There is a profusion of roses, myrtle, rosemary, jasmine, lavender and camellia plantings everywhere and, no doubt, every passing season brings its own natural contribution. The Patio de la Acequia is the most beloved of the various patios in the garden for the graceful jets of spouting water that flow into a reflecting pool make gentle arches around visitors as they pause in the scented air. As you climb the marble steps along the Escalera del Aqua, you are surrounded by dwarf bay trees that lend a soft herbal perfume to the space as the flowing of water lilts quietly around. I plucked a bay leaf to stick in my scrapbook, a tiny souvenir from the annals of history and time that seemed to stand still as my fingers caressed the cool marble landings.

Though very pleasing to the senses, touring these environs is wildly exhausting, and we were forced to stop for a rest before exploring the Alcazabar or the Castle Keep through which the townspeople of Granada found access to their rulers. Here was where the artisans and local merchants made their homes and carried out their trade. Here are the barracks of the army and the public baths of the soldiers. Here is a stairway that leads up to the roofline from which once can gaze upon the natural ice-encrusted towering peaks of the Sierra Nevadas that cast a frowning glance upon the man-made heights of the Al-Hambra’s steeples. Here is where the royal pendant flew on that fateful day in 1492 when determined to seize power back from the Moors and stop Muslim expansion in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabel made Boabdil give up his rights to rule in exchange for the promise that his Muslim people would be allowed to practice their faith without hindrance—a pact that was rapidly broken. Here is where he cast a last poignantly sorrowful glance upon the power that once was his—a thought that brought the tears flowing from his eyes and caused his mother to comment icily, “You are crying like a child for a kingdom that you could not defend like a man”.

Before we left, we peaked into the Palace of Charles V, an ambitious Renaissance square-shaped building (to symbolize earthly power and stability) with a completely round, spherical interior design (to symbolize the greatness of the heavens and the powers of the cosmos). Never completed, this building today houses Spanish-Islamic archives and art objects, the most famous of which is the Al-Hambra Vase.

I cannot even begin to express how fortunate I felt to be walking through these pathways and patios, through these arcades and arbors. For years I have read about the beauty and significance of the Al-Hambra Palace in Granada never believing that I would, one day, have the privilege of touring these unreal spaces in person. It was unfathomable to me that such marvels were produced so many centuries ago and that it was not just aesthetic pleasure that was sought here but intellectual pursuit as well for the gardens and the domes are often laid out in accordance with the principles of Pythagoras’ Theorem. Learning and intellectual endeavors were never very far away from the Islamic mindset in the medieval ages and the enduring importance of such cities as Cordoba and Granada attest to the extent to which human determination can produce splendor while attempting to assuage one’s God.

Leaving the fairytale magic and enchantment of Granada behind us, we set out in search of our lodgings for the night—Villa Ithaca Bed and Breakfast located in the tiny village of Padul that is run by a British couple, Jeremy and Sophie Colwell with the assistance of Jeremy’s parents Dudley and Ann. When we did find it at nightfall, tired and hungry after our day’s sojourn, they suggested we find sustenance at a nearby restaurant, Valle del Punta. A short walk took us to this charming establishment in which a gigantic fireplace warmed the very casual seating. We opted for Spanish tapas—Serrano ham and olives in brine as a first course then ordered Shrimp sauted in olive oil, garlic and parsley and served with crusty bread. Washed down by Spanish beer, it made a lovely end to our very enlightening day and it was with great fatigue that we flopped into our beds for the night.

Jeremy served us a humongous breakfast, the next morning, in a dining room that overlooked the patchwork fields of the Andalucian countryside. Over the first fresh melon of the season, fruit and nut studded muesli, scrambled eggs on toast, hot buttered croissants, freshly squeezed orange juice and freshly ground coffee, we talked about our plans for the day with another English couple, Mike and Susan, who were also resident at our B&B. Then, it was time to leave but not before Ann gave me a tour of her lovely gardens and discussed with me her plans to develop the B&B into a far more upscale space for long-term lodgers. Bidding goodbye to our very friendly hosts, we drove off to discover the enticements of the ritzy Costa del Sol.

To follow us on the next leg of our journey in Spain, please click on Costa del Sol.

Bueno Viajes!


Barbary Apes on the Great Rock

 (In Gibraltar with the famous Rock in the background) 

By the end we arrived in Gibraltar, we were so close to Africa we felt as if we could reach out and touch the mountainous coastline. It became so clear to me how easily the Moors had reached Spain after their march through Tunisian, Algeria and Morocco. Once Northern Africa fell to Moorish rule, could Spain be far behind? Just a short row over the Straits of Gibraltar brought the Moors over to Europe and it was through the gateway of Southern Spain that their conquest of Andalucia began. Indeed it was in AD 711 that Tariq Ibn Zayed, the Muslim governor of Tangier, Morocco, landed at Gibraltar to begin the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The name Gibraltar is derived from the Arabic Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mountain).

Gibraltar is a very strange place indeed. Nothing quite prepares you for the combination of cultures—Spanish, Islamic, British–in this tiny town that still belongs to Great Britain. The astounding dimensions of the Rock seem to consume the entire town. You must drive through Spain’s border town of Linea de la Conception, however, before arriving at Checkpoint Charlie where documents are checked by immigration officials to clear one’s entry into Gibraltar. Linea itself, like most tiny Spanish towns, was a maze of narrow winding streets. God forbid if you get lost in this labyrinth or do not have the skills to negotiate a car through the limited space available. Once we did join the queue to get our passports checked, we coasted across the tarmac of an airport into the town of Gibraltar where street signs seemed to spring out quite suddenly at us in English. After having struggled for days with the inability to get ourselves understood in Spain, our arrival in Gibraltar was a relief at least from the point of view of language.


Gibraltar’s main attraction is its Rock, of course, a place that hides a multitude of interests for the traveler including the famous Barbary Apes (left). To the ancients, this was one of the Two Pillars of Hercules set up by the Greek hero to denote the edge of the world (the other pillar was in the coastal town of Musa in Morocco about 25 kms. south). On the Rock, a huge monument has been set up to recall its connection with Hercules who is something of a local hero in these parts (below left).

As we followed signs to Upper Rock Nature Reserve, we began the steep and somewhat scary climb up the sheer limestone escarpment of the Rock. Twelve Euros buys entry into the nature reserve where one can see the famous macaques or Barbary Apes that are said to have made their way to Europe from across the Barbary Coast of Africa on ships in the 18th century. These cheeky animals congregate throughout the Rock, boldly pulling ice-cream cones from the unwary or snatching cameras from tourist hands.

We kept our distance while taking pictures with them and headed towards St. Michael’s Cave  (left)which has a spectacular natural formation of stalactites and stalagmites within. Now converted into a concert hall, the backdrop of the stage is both eerie and exciting and I could just imagine what it would feel like to listen to a stirring orchestral rendition in these echoing caves. Spain ceded the Rock to Britain in 1713.

Our final stop on this exploration of the Rock was the Great Siege Tunnels (left and below left), a very interesting exhibit that recalls the 1779-83 Spanish Siege that attempted to wrest the town away from the British for the last time. Today, most Gibraltrians are of British descent.

They have lived in the settlement for generations and are unwilling to cede back under Spanish control. And why would they want to? Their High Street holds stores like Marks and Spencer and Mothercare and their red pillar post boxes and bobbies almost fool them into believing that they are in the very heart of the Home Counties. Overall, Gibraltar had a nautical, seafaring look about it and reminded me very much of the atmosphere of the small coastal villages of England.

While it is possible to climb up the Rock on foot, I cannot even begin to explain what a nightmare it was to drive up it. Llew who is a skilled and very experienced driver, had a very challenging time indeed as he dealt with the temperament of a stick shift car on very narrow two-way streets on steep slopes that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was altogether too much stress for one driver to deal with and we were grateful when our visit ended and we reached the base of the Rock.

The heights of the Rock, however, do present panoramic views of Spain’s southern coast and Africa’s northern coast. From every vantage point, there are lovely views of the sea and the mountains (left) and it was fascinating to know that very shortly we would be crossing those straits and arriving on the other side—to another Continent and another world. We could not wait…

A short drive away from Gibraltar, further west, one passes through the town of Algeciras and arrives at Tarifa, the last point along the coast from where one can pick up a ferry to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and enter Morroco. Our arrival in Tarifa coincided with dinner time, and contenting ourselves with a pizza, we boarded the ferry run by a company called FRS that took us, during a very pleasant cruise, across the waters. Roundtrip fares were 48 euros per head. We cleared immigration formalities on board the ferry, changed euros into local Moroccan dirhams and sat down to observe our fellow- passengers, most of whom were speaking Arabic and were clearly of Moroccan descent. Men wearing the long traditional robes of the Moroccans and women clad in flowing robes and hijabs were returning home to Tangier after a day long excursion in Spain.  As for me, as the coast of Spain faded in the distance, as we left Europe behind to set foot on the continent of Africa, I was hugely excited as it was my very time on the Dark Continent and who knew what secrets this land would reveal to me? A short 45 minutes later, our ferry docked in Tangier Port where a huge sign in English, Arabic and French welcomed the visitor to Morocco.

To follow us on our travels in Morocco, you will need to click on Africa. Then, to return to our travels in Spain, you must click on Seville, which was the next stop on our explorations in Europe.

Bueno Viajes!

Costa del Sol

A short drive south through the heart of Andalucia took us through fields of cork oak and olive trees. Spring had already sprung in this part of the country and early blossoms bathed the landscape in a pink glow. The road wound down past towering gorges, rocky river banks, old and new bridges to Motril from where we drove west along Spain’s southern border, the equivalent of France’s Cote d’Azur. The Costa del Sol is fast becoming as snazzy as the French Riviera and we were astounded by the vast amount of construction activity all along the coastal towns. Huge billboards on the highway advertised the availability of sea-facing real estate. While ancient white-washed towns sparkled in the bright sunlight as they clung precariously to hillsides in Almunecar and Nerja, more modern apartment-style housing is devouring the green mountains of the Alpajurras as they slope down to the Mediterranean Sea. After the development of the EU, Europeans have so much more mobility and retirement options have opened up exponentially for them. Little wonder that the English are buying up real estate in warmer countries such as Italy, France and Spain where their preference for the sea, the sun and the sand is clearly evident. But press on we did past the large city of Malaga, Southern Spain’s biggest, to the well-known town of Torremolinos and the lesser-known town of Benalmadena, now completely taken over by seasonal visitors from England. Finally, we arrived at the ritzy-chic beach resort of Marbella.    

  Of all the little towns on this coastal stretch, Marbella is the glossiest as a result of the Marbella Club Hotel that was set up in the 1950s by Alfonso von Hohenloer that attracted the rich and the famous. I was determined to take in a piece of the action in this Cannes of the South of Spain and we made our way to the water since all Marbella’s beaches are still free to the public. The pebbly beach at Playa de Venus  (above) allowed us to dip our toes into the aquamarine Mediterranean where the waters were still icy. While sunbathers caught their share of rays on the clean stretches of sand, but for one brave little girl, there was no one else in the water. The streets were elegant and clean, full of real estate offices offering snazzy accommodation. Since it was a Sunday, most of them were closed, so that an air of relaxed quietness hung about the town. Swim season was not quite upon the resort, but I could just imagine how many hordes would descend upon these beaches in June, July and August. We were happy to sneak a peek into this little celebrity town before we motored west along the coast heading towards the weird anomaly that is the U.K. held territory of Gibraltar. Long before we arrived anywhere close to the town, the monolithic Rock of Gibraltar, seemingly rising out of the ocean, was clearly visible to us along the highway as were, across the waters of the Straits, the misty blueness of the peaks of the Rif Mountains on the northern coast of Africa.

Bon Voyage!


Exploring the Cathedral-Mezquita

(Inside the unique Cathedral-Mezquita, the only structure in the world that includes a cathedral and a mosque)

The drive from Seville to Cordoba took us just under two hours. The rest allowed us to feel renewed interest in the city that lay across both banks of the River Guadalquivir that wends its way throughout this region. Unlike the ease with which we found underground public parking for our Citroen in Madrid and Seville, Cordoba was a nightmare. All public parking was on the streets and not a single spot was available. Feeling deeply frustrated from our futile search, we were deeply grateful to solicit the aid of a local Spanish man whose English was non-existent but whose willingness to help knew no bounds. He actually signaled that we should follow him as he led us to an overnight parking facility in a spot very close to the Mezquita-Cathedral which is Cordoba’s leading attraction.

Cordoba’s Mezquita or Mosque, which is recognized as the most significant work of Islamic architecture in the West, was first constructed between AD 785 and 787. As the centuries passed, succeeding rulers added on to it, creating a gigantic space for Friday prayers. By the 10th century, this edifice acquired the elaborate mihrab (prayer niche) that once held a golden Koran and the muqsaba (caliph’s enclosure) under the orders of al Hakam II. What distinguishes Cordoba’s Mezquita from any other such house of worship is the endless numbers of “horse shoe arches”, some double tiered, with their candy-stripe paint, supported on a mass of pillars made of different materials, mainly marble, jasper and alabaster. Most of these pillars were taken from older Roman and Visigothic buildings so that they lack any kind of visual uniformity. The Mosque is entered through a minaret that led the faithful into a Patio de los Naranjos or Orange Grove whose central fountain was used by the faithful for washing purposes before they entered the mosque to pray. Needless to say, the arrival of Christianity in Cordoba put paid to Muslim worship and while swift steps were taken to create a cathedral out of the mosque, the extraordinary beauty and sheer size of the Mezquita prevented its destruction. Instead the Catholics went about creating a gorgeous Cathedral inside, destroying a small part of the mosque to accommodate it. This makes Cordoba’s Mezquita the only building of its kind in the world today: for it is a Cathedral that exists within the borders of what was once an active place of Islamic worship. No pains were spared to make the capilla mayor of the cathedral as visually stunning as the rest of the mosque so that the transept is a confection of Baroque excess, plainly evident in the pillars, cornices, arches and niches of the nave. Photographs can do no justice to such interior grandeur. Part of the treasury in the Mezquita was a monstrously sized monstrance made entirely of gold and silver that is, unbelievably, still hauled out during public processions in the city.

Before darkness fully robbed us of the pleasures of a stroll through the adjoining Jewish district called La Juderia, we followed the winding streets into the heart of picturesque patios and plazas, most of which hold pavement cafes and souvenir shops today. Needless to say, the auto da fe or Trials of Faith that were part of the Spanish Inquisition led to the permanent expulsion of the Jews from Spain so that the districts they inhabited became antiquated living museums of their erstwhile prosperity. It is ironic that the Jews who enjoyed religious freedom under the Moors were tormented by the Catholics who even after their conversion to Christianity refused to respect their sincerity and persecuted them as “false Christians”. What we realized from our travels in Andalucia was that Catholicism has a great deal to answer for indeed. No wonder the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe during the Renaissance, though , surprisingly, it left Spain entirely unmoved.

When we had explored the city sufficiently to need a nap and a break, we headed out in search of our Bed and Breakfast Lineros, a short twenty minute walk from the main mosque area. We loved the charming interior of our place. Built in mujedar style, it had a central patio that formed the reception area. The interiors of our rooms were so charmingly decorated with four poster beds, wooden armoirs or almirahs as the Moors called them, and Islamic designs on the bed linens. We decided to take short naps before going out to La Juderia to find a suitable restaurant for a good Andalucian meal. Once again referring to our guidebooks, we opted for La Churassca Restaurant on Calle Romero that offered a variety of barbecued meats. Set in a traditional white-washed building in the heart of the Jewish district, the restaurant was very sweetly decorated with all kinds of regional motifs including ceramic tiles and serve ware that are the hallmarks of the potteries of this area. Our waiter, a gracious old man who was both attentive and helpful, suggested we start off with traditional Spanish Potato Omlettes (4.50 euros) and that we taste the Grilled Pork Loin served with Sauce Arabes (12.50 Euros) for which the restaurant is well reputed. We placed ourselves in his hands and found the meal quite enjoyable though not outstanding. In fact, none of the restaurants came quite up to the standard of the one in Madrid that served us such a memorable paella. A late night stroll along the banks of the Guadalquivir to our hotel ended another very exciting day for us.

Early the next morning, we hit the highways again en route to Toledo, medieval city and imperial gem.

Bueno Viajes!


Bewitching Barcelona

In the Bari Gottic or Gothic Quarter outside the Cathedral

Cloud cover over the UK (so what else is new, right?) made my window seat redundant but within an hour and 40 minutes, we touched down in Barcelona. Couldn’t enjoy the landing as it was too dark. Immigration clearance took another ten minutes (was the officer really leering at me, or was that my imagination?) and then I was outside the airport into the balmy night and looking confusedly for the aeroport bus to take me to the city.
At this point, I latched on to two English girls who had been to Barcelona before and knew the ropes. They directed me to the bus stop where they were heading themselves and presto, within five minutes, a bus materialized (the fare to be paid to the driver on the bus was 4. 05 euros–thank goodness I had some change with me) and we were off. Through the well-lit roads we sped, many of them reminding me of Madrid, and arrived at Plaza de la Catalunya (Catalonian Square) from where Las Ramblas, the main artery originated. A five minute walk through the crowded street (yes, it was buzzing even at 10 pm) took me to the Youth Hostel where I checked in to find myself placed in an 8-bedded mixed dorm with a bunch of youngsters from Switzerland, Germany and Brazil. They gave me a very hearty welcome indeed and though I was tired, out of politeness, I did spend some time socializing with them while munching on my baguette dinner.

At 10. 30 pm, I was in my bunk, only to be awoken frequently during the night by my young suite mates for whom Friday night can only mean one thing–Party Time!

First impressions of Barcelona? It doesn’t have it’s Fun City reputation for nothing!

Rambling through Las Ramblas and the Bari Gottic

The youngsters sharing my dorm went clubbing and didn’t return till day break. They were sound asleep when I awoke at 9 am, used the Ladies Only bathroom at the far end of my corridor and went down to breakfast in the hotel dining room. This was Carboholics Paradise with cornflakes and muffins and toast and coffee presiding.

Reading up on the plane as to how to spend my three days in Barcelona, I was advised by the gurus at Lonely Planet to start with the Bari Gottic (that’s the Gothic Bario or Quarter). Knowing that the best way to get a feel of a place is on foot, I fuelled up on those carbs, tied the shoe laces on my walking shoes firmly and was off for the day. And I honestly did not stop walking until night fell!
Las Ramblas was already frenetic with activity when I got there at 9. 45 am. I crossed it and entered the Call (or former Jewish Quarter) and was confronted with a tangle of confusing streets, some so narrow that only two people would walk through them abreast. But what character is preserved in this maze! I got a crick that stayed in my neck for the next four days as my head was titled at an angle to allow me to take in the overhanging balconies (very similar to those in Naples, Italy) as I walked gingerly along cobbled streets–the last thing I wanted was a twisted ankle! One old plaza opened out into the other and soon I was taking in the sights of the Plaza de la Jaume, one of the oldest parts of the city that traces its origin to the Roman occupation of Spain. My camera worked overtime as I tried to capture it all.

Lonely Planet’s Walk through Ramblas and Bari Gottic takes the stroller through plazas and medieval cloisters of Romanesque and Gothic churches, through crusted Roman walls and tombs, through churches with enormous Rose windows and geese-filled courtyards, through ancient monuments, hoary with history. I even saw a wedding take place at the charming 12th century church of St. Anne and am sure to be in some of those wedding pictures–I’m sure the bride is going to wonder at the Indian tourist gawking at her off-white mantilla!

I spent a long while in the Gothic Cathedral with its many chapels, its superbly carved wooden choir stalls and pulpit, the crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia and the Monstrance of Barcelona, not to mention the quiet chapel of Santa Lucia.

Out on the main Plaza Nova, there was scribbles on a building which turned out to be Picasso drawings on the walls of the College of Architecture. That’s what’s so wonderful about these Spanish cities–you see the work of the Modern Masters embedded on the walls and on the streets (Gaudi tiles–I mean tiles by Antoni Gaudi–decorate the Passeig de Garcia and there is a Miro mosaic that you can walk all over on Las Ramblas!)

Leaving the Cathedral environs behind me, I stopped in a tiny old taverna for chocolate and churros (the Spanish snack I remembered so well from my visit with Llew to Madrid a few years ago). The chocolate is so thick, your churros (fried dough sticks) can stand upright in it. Yuumm! I didn’t worry about the calories because I knew I was burning them up faster that I could digest those churros! Then, I was heading for the waterfront, where I saw another sculpture (Roy Lichtenstein’s odd piece entitled Barcelona’s Head). I found myself a bench and since my feet were fairly killing me by this time, I stretched put and closed my eyes (ah, how heavenly that felt!) and contemplated the canopy of trees above me.

Then, I set out for the Llotja (or medieval Stock Exchange building) whose front contains an Art School that both Picasso and Miro attended as teenagers. In a while, I was at the most famous church in the city–the Church of our Lady of the Sea–another Gothic wonder (though I preferred the Cathedral for atmosphere and art works). After a swift visit (there was another wedding scheduled there), I headed off for the Carrera de Montecada, a narrow medieval Bond Street of sorts which once boasted the most fashionable designer stores in the country. Today, its string of old palaus (mansions) have been converted into museums and when I discovered that almost all of them open their doors for free on the first Sunday of each month, I resolved to return the next morning to get to the Museu Picasso first.

However, I did also pass by the Museu de l’Historia de Catalunya and was I glad I popped in there! For this place was free on the first Saturday of each month, so if I could find the motivation and the energy to explore it, I could get in right then and there. And who could pass up such a good offer, right? So there I was, nine metres underground (a lift got me down there) doing a walk through Barsino, which was the Roman name for the city. Recent archaeological excavations have unearthed a city lying intact underground and I felt as if I was back again in Pompeii exploring the bakery and the wine cellars and the homes and palaces of the rich and well-constructed city as it thrived under the Romans!

My exploration done, I emerged on the Plaza del Rei (which I finally managed to find after almost a whole day’s search) and made my way back to La Ramblas and then the sea front where the tall column with Christopher Columbus allegedly pointing to his beloved Genoa, graces the landscape. Antique and junk jewelery stalls kept me browsing for a while before I decided that if I didn’t get back to my hostel room soon, I would quite pass out with fatigue!

Back in my room, my suite mates were partying (I don’t believe they had stopped since the previous evening!) and offered me a Spanish beer (Estrella, which was cold and very good) and as I ate my sandwich dinner and socialized with them, I wound down and got ready for bed.

Dazzled by Picasso and Gaudi
 Early on Sunday morning, while the rest of the Youth Hostel residents were sleeping off their weekend carousing, I walked quickly along the Bari Gottic and arrived at the Museu Picasso only to be stunned at the endless line that had formed before the museum even opened its doors. With at least 500 folks on line, I decided to explore the Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Pre-Colombi which translates from the Catalonian into the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This collection is also located in a beautiful old palau (mansion) on the Carrer de Montecada, right opposite the Museu Picasso, but so gigantic is the reputation of Pablo that no one seemed interested in inspecting the treasure concealed inside–and frankly I did not expect anything too impressive either.

How mistaken I was! One room in particular so seized my imagination that I was glad I gave Picasso a miss until the queues thinned out. The manuscript room was filled with photocopies of the correspondence that ensued between Columbus and the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who had sponsored his voyages of discovery. Columbus writes in his own hand about the things he encounters in the Caribbean Islands and his disappointment at not finding any gold. The diary jottings of a number of his crew were also on display and I was transported to 1492 as I scrutinized those priceless documents. Seeing these words in black and white (or sepia and white, to be more precise) somehow made history come alive for me and gave it a soul.

Then, I was out on the street ready to join the line for the Picasso Museum. To my astonishment, I entered in less than ten minutes and though the place was filled, it was still possible to enjoy the contents of the many rooms at leisure and study every single one of the exhibits. I found the museum totally fascinating though most visitors are rather disappointed to find that his best-known works are not on display–they happen to be in Paris, of course, at the Musee Picasso (where I had seen them 22 years ago and been profoundly moved).

This time round, I was moved again, but for altogether another reason. This collection showcases Picasso’s earliest work, most of which was done when he was still barely out of his teens and while he lived and studied Art in Barcelona’s Llotja Art School. It allowed the viewer to see exactly how he progressed from an imitative artist to one who blazed new trails and changed the direction of 20th century Art completely. His earliest self-portraits show an uncanny resemblance to his last photographs taken just before his death. His portraits of his father and his mother are touchingly realistic–such a far cry from the iconoclast into which he evolved. The canvases he submitted to Art competitions while he was still in art school are extraordinarily realistic and show no signs at all of the abstract artist he would become. I found all of this extraordinarily moving. There were a few canvases from his Blue Period and his Rose Period and then the tempo quickened as we moved into his Cubist phase with his take on the work of the Old Masters such as Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and, of course, the famous series he did on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. This superb collection is an opportunity for any lover of Modern Art to understand Picasso’s complex journey and to marvel as its exhaustive invention.

It took me an hour and a half to see it all and then I was on the street enjoying the warmth of the Iberian sunshine pouring down upon me as I decided to spend an hour in the Parc de la Citadella, a green lung of the city that contains some interesting early landscape designs by Gaudi, primarily in the huge Cascade or Waterfall that he created which contains, among other things, statuary, spouting jets of water and terraced basins. The park also is also the location of the Catalonian Parliament but since tours were stopped for the day, I had to content myself with a look-see around the exterior. It reminded me a bit of the Parc de Bieno Retiro in Madrid which included topiary and a lake in which boating was a pleasant weekend past-time. Indeed, the park was empty of tourists and it was great to see the ‘locals’ taking the air, strolling along with their toddlers and to watch the elderly enjoy a sit-down on the many benches.

Then, began my long walk towards Barcelona’s piece de resistance, La Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Holy Family). This iconic image of the city is now familiar to most people but to see it in person is truly a staggering experience. A conception of Gaudi’s imagination, work on this Gothic cathedral began over a hundred years ago but came to a standstill during the Communist era of the Spanish Civil War. When construction was resumed, Gaudi make it his personal ambition to get it finished but, as luck would have it, he was mowed down by a tram right in front of the church. Undaunted by his demise, the engineers and architects continued with his vision and the church is described today as a “work-in-progress”. Most of the exterior has been completed but the inside is still basically a shell with completion expected only in 2030.

Encrusted with sculpture depicting the Nativity on the back facade and the Passion on the front, Gaudi took his inspiration from nature, his constant companion as a child. This was brought home to me through the small exhibit in the crypt of the church and for that reason alone, I was so glad I splurged on the 10 euros that it cost to enter it. I understood completely the rationale of this genius after seeing that exhibit and perceiving the link between the various images from nature (wheat stalks, lavender, sunflowers, pine cones, etc.) on the artistic and architectural motifs to be found on his buildings and their interiors. Everything that had seemed weird suddenly made complete sense to me and I felt as if I had a revelation, an epiphany of sorts.

I took so many pictures but cameras cannot quite capture the intensity of his vision or the creative zeal that has allowed it to be implemented. The giant columns inside the church, for instance, are multi-limbed trees whose branches form a canopy above–Gaudi’s take on Gothic fan-vaulting. The choir stalls at the back of the church are so wide and expansive that, when complete, will hold 1,500 singers. I encircled the building several times both inside and out because suddenly I could not get enough of this revolutionary architect and since I was exhausted by this point, I took the Metro back to Las Ramblas, very proud of the fact that I found my way despite needing to make two changes on two different lines and without speaking or reading a word of Spanish!

Though the evening was still young, I was much too pooped to possibly consider covering any more ground that day. I returned gratefully to the hostel and plopped into my bed where I stayed for the rest of the evening!

Blown Away by the Modernistas

Though I did not intend to, it turned out that I saved the best for last. Indeed, on my last day in Barcelona, I decided to take another self-guided walking tour (as outlined in Lonely Planet) of the area called L’Eixample. This region, consisting of about 12 street blocks in the heart of the city, showcases the work of the Modernist architects that flourished in Barcelona in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Apart from the gigantic figure of Antoni Gaudi, they include Domeneck i Montaner and Josef Puig i Cadafalch. The best place at which to start such an exploration of this burst of architectural creativity is the lovely Parc Guell and when I found out over breakfast that one of my Youth Hostel fellow-residents, a German woman named Gisella, decided to visit it too, we made plans to travel there together.

Taking the Number 24 bus from the Plaza de la Catalunya (fare was 1. 30 euros one way), we drove through the wide boulevards of this fascinating city and arrived, about 20 minutes later, at one of the many entrances to the Park. We were glad we had opted for the bus because the journey was long and involved a steep climb up a mountain which afforded lovely views of the city sleeping quietly in the autumnal sunshine.

Our exploration into Parc Guell took us first to the Museu Gaudi, a pink confection of a house in which the artist had once lived. Now converted into a musuem, visitors are free to wander inside for 5 euros, but Gisella and I decided to pass as we had a great deal to cover that day. Instead we walked towards the wide open ceramic tile encrusted terraces, Gaudi’s handiwork, which offered views towards the park’s main entrance where the famous iconic figure of the ceramic lizard is to be found. Of course, we took pictures by the spouting fountain and the sunflower tiled terrace and the towering columns punctuated with the octopus-like tentacles of the ceiling decoration. With each vignette that presented itself, I understood more about Gaudi’s creative passion. Walking around the terraced tiers of the garden, I had the chance to appreciate Gaudi’s work as a landscape architect and I understood again the organic nature of his creations.

Then, Gisella and I were in the bus, making our way towards the center of town to begin our walking tour of the work of the Modernists or Modernistas as they are known in Spain. One after the other, we paused to admire the buildings created with the principles of Art Nouveau in mind–the curlicues, the fussy flourishes, the total femininity of the aesthetic vision. We saw La Prendrera, the famous apartment building designed by Gaudi on Passeig de Garcia. Just a few steps away was Casa Batllo which my guide book suggested we tour if there was just one building we could afford to see. And so Gisella and I purchased a ticket (16. 50 Euros each), which seemed like a princely sum until we entered the space and were swept off our feet.

Casa Batllo is a private mansion for which Gaudi received a commission from the Batllos. He conceived the entire building as deriving from the Sea and chose blue as the dominate color on his rather subdued palate. Inside, motifs from the sea–shells, conches, sea horses, whales, star fish, etc. envelope the space so fully and so ingeniously that words can do it no justice at all. As you wander from one space to the next, you don’t quite know what to take in–so detailed are the touches, so imaginative is the execution. In his signature material–ceramic tile, carved and polished wood, blown glass–Gaudi had created a home that is not just one-of-a-kind but state-of-the-art as well for its time.

The aesthetic features are so perfectly balanced by the scientific and engineering rationale that prompted them that what you see is a perfect marriage of the Arts and the Sciences in that one space. What’s more, every single little feature from the brass door handles to the crystal chandeliers, from the wrought-iron window boxes to the cutest little elevator you ever did see, are entirely conceived and fashioned by his stupendous imagination. This home is certainly one of the most splendid things I have ever seen in my entire life and I emerged out of the place totally overwhelmed.

By this time, I had lost Gisella. Using the audio guides that came with our entry ticket, we had viewed the building at our own pace and, in the process, had drifted apart. Deciding to complete the walking tour on my own, I pressed bravely onwards taking in the Casa Amatler, the Fondacion Antoni Tapie, the Casa Lleo Morera, the Casa Pia Batllo–all of which define the work of the Modernists. Some of the building facades carried elaborate carvings, others had astounding wrought-iron scrollwork, yet others had fancy balconies…every single one of these features falls under the umbrella of Modernism, but I guess the tour reached it zenith at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Montaner for the performances of Catalonian Music.

This building is striking in the extreme for the facade that sports the busts of famous composers such as Verdi and Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner, ceramic pillars that hold up the structure, ceramic tiles that freely decorate the floors and the ceilings and a wealth of stained glass windows. I decided to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria inside–a wonderful selection of Spanish tapas presented itself and in choosing to nibble on serrano ham and fish paste with shrimp, I found myself a tasty little lunch, before I picked up the pace once again and arrived at the Mercat de la Boqueria, a famous street market right of Las Ramblas. There, I bought myself neat packages of serrano ham and manchego cheese and with a baguette was able to fashion some truly delicious sandwiches for my dinner later that day

And then, when the sun was close to setting, I realized that I had been in Barcelona for three whole days and had not yet visited its beaches! As you can tell, beach combing is rather a low priority for me, but since I could not possibly leave without setting eyes on the Mediterranean, off I went on another long ramble in the direction of the beach. Within a half hour, I was at the waterfront, enjoying the promenade on a particularly pleasant evening as I watched families have a fun time together. In the far distance, the land mass curved around towards the French fishing port of Marseilles and on the other side, the sea stretched towards the Costa Brava. Ahead of me, the brilliant azure-blue of the Mediterranean made a spectacular backdrop and I was so glad I did find the motivation and the energy to see the sea!

On my rambles back, I took a different route past the ancient Roman quarter once again and, quite by chance, came upon a leather shop from which I bought my one big purchase of the trip–a Spanish leather backpack.

Barcelona was everything I had expected it to me and more, but by the end of three days, I was ready to back my backpack and move on and, the next day, I left the hostel early to catch a bus to the airport for my return to London.

Bon Voyage!



Viva Espana!

Don Quixote tossed his hat at these windmills in Consuegra in Castilla-la-Mancha, Spain.

Hola All!

Sunny Spain beckoned urgently and we responded enthusiastically. Taking the red eye US Airways flight via New York City and Philadelphia, we arrived in the capital city of Madrid about 9 am. By the time we claimed our rental car from National Atessa, a spiffy brand-new silver gray Citroen with just 37 kms on it (right) , Llew got the hang of changing gears on the stick shift controls, and we headed out on the highways into the city that lay bathed in glorious golden sunshine.

We enjoyed ourselves enormously in Spain and Morocco. Doubtless, the trip did present a few glitches as all travel adventures invariably do. The inability to find parking in Cordoba, for instance, and the impatience of Spanish drivers who honk angrily at hesitant navigators were only some of the negative experiences we had. Then there was the fiasco at the ferry port in Tangiers when we missed our boat by a fraction of a second. But we took these stumbles in our stride as they were only minor inconveniences on a trip that was truly both entertaining and educational.

(On the main promenade in the chic beach resort of Marbella in Spain)

Most of all we loved the Spanish and Moroccan people, their warmth, their caring, their courtesy. They went out of their way to help us when we were lost and gesticulated madly when they knew that we could not understand their language. We enjoyed their cuisine, and partook enthusiastically in their love for cold meats, red wines, crusty bread and aged cheeses. We returned home with bottles of Spanish saffron and Moroccan antique necklaces. We also added to our stock of postcards, magnets and porcelain plates, not to mention the hundreds of photographs we took. Back home, I had many happy hours of scrap booking fun.

(The magical Plaza of the Lions in the Al-Hambra Palace in Granada, Spain)

Wanderlust is a fever that Llew and I share and we are so glad for this ailment. We hope you will enjoy your armchair travels with us. Click on the links above to read about our adventures in the many regions of Spain that we explored.

To follow Llew and me on our journeys through Spain, please click  Memories of Madrid.

Bueno Viaje!!!