Monday, January 14, 2019

Granada, and the Incomparable Alhambra

We went back to Granada for a third time. There’s something about the city’s history, buildings, and of course the Alhambra, that keeps drawing us back.
An ancient bridge near the main plaza of Granada
On this trip we were accompanied by our friends, Sue and Allan, who were visiting from Portland, OR, which gave us the opportunity to play tour guide. The big draw in Granada is the Alhambra, the fabulous palace built for Yousf I, the Sultan of Granada, in the 14th century. It is the biggest attraction in Spain, and with good reason! We were thrilled to have an opportunity to visit it yet again.

This time we stayed in the city center, in a nice modern apartment. It was within walking distance of pretty much everything. Our main desire, though, was to see the Alhambra. Sue had gotten tickets well in advance (a necessity, even in the winter low season), and we devoted an entire day to our visit.

The day before our visit  we prepared by making the long climb to the Albaicín, a very old neighborhood now quite popular with locals and tourists alike. As sunset approaches, the Plaza de San Nicolas, with its magnificent views of the Alhambra right across the ravine, fills with sightseers, photographers, venders, buskers, and the idly curious. It’s quite the scene!
Scene at Plaza de San Nicolas as sunset approaches

And the Alhambra just after dark

The Albaicin seen from the Alhambra. Plaza de San Nicolas is at the base of the white church in the upper center.
This neighborhood is where Paula and I had stayed during our visit two years ago. We'd dined at a fine restaurant just below the Plaza. We found it again, and watched the sun set against the walls of the Alhambra as we sipped our drinks and commented on the views. Afterwards we strolled through the ancient neighborhood, admiring the stone walls and narrow, cobbled lanes, and stumbled on another memory from our past visit: a bar on the central plaza offering a truly impressive tapas buffet. What a selection! We were ready for dinner, and so double glad to revisit this memorable experience, and share it with our friends.
Quite a spread! The only tapas buffet we've seen.
The next day we were up early and into a taxi for the climb up the steep hill to the Alhambra. We entered through the Puerta de la Justicia, or Justice Gate (it took a while before the taxi driver could understand our poor Spanish, so once under way spent the entire 10-minute drive practicing our pronunciation of Puerta de la Justicia – just don’t ask me how to say it now!) The gate is a magnificent structure, and a fitting entrance to the Alhambra. We were a bit early for our scheduled entry at 9 AM, so we stood in line in the bright but cold sunshine and looked across the ravine at the densely packed houses of the Albaicin.

The impressive Puerta de las Justicia. We entered through the small door on the right.
Allan looks back at the entry from inside the Alhambra.
Paula, Sue, and Allan near the Palace of Charles V
The Alhambra has a long history. Starting as a Roman fortress, it was expanded into a royal palace for the Moorish sultan in 1333, and then continuously added to over the centuries by the Moors and, later, the Spanish. Under the Moors the underlying theme of the palace was "paradise on earth,” represented architecturally using column arcades, fountains, reflecting pools, and gardens. The interior is lavishly decorated – endlessly decorated – with exquisitely carved plaster, magnificent wood work, and intricately laid tile. (We saw very similar decoration throughout Morocco, and in fact in Fez were privileged to watch artisans crafting modern works very similar to those found in the Alhambra). 

Patio de comares, the Court of the Myrtles
The Lion Fountain, with its 12 lion statues; in the Court of the Lions
Even on our third visit, the magnificence of the palace was in no way diminished. There’s a mathematical precision to the proportions that lends a relaxed harmony to the palace, enhanced by the pools and refreshing sounds of flowing water. Plus there’s the nearly mind-numbing complexity of the tile work and plaster, carved wood and painted goat-skin ceilings. It’s certainly one of our favorite places!

Plaster "stalactites" in the ceiling commemorate a story of Mohammed spending a night in a cave escaping enemies. 

Fountain in the Court of the Lindaraja

Fountain in the Generalife Garden

Circular interior of  Palace of Charles V
That night we once more visited the neighborhood of the Albaicin at sunset, looking back at the Alhambra again, but with a new understanding of the buildings and ramparts. We wandered past shops we’d seen the night before, and continued down the hill as lights came on all over the city. We arrived at our apartment tired and cold, but satisfied with our day.

A fine, more modern building in downtown Granada.
A view of the cathedral, Cathedral of the Incarnation.
We had one last full day in Granada, and used it to explore the downtown area. Among other places, we visited the cathedral and the Royal Chapel of Granada (Capilla Real de Granada), burial place of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. It must have been a heady time for them, in January of 1492, when, after 10 hard-fought years, Boabdil (Emir Muhammad XII of Granada), last Moorish king of Granada, surrendered the keys to the city and left. Spain was finally “liberated” from the Moors, the Reconquista was over, and the Monarchs moved into the Alhambra. The remaining Moors, and the many Jews who had been welcome in Moorish lands, were required to convert to Christianity or face death. (The descendants of those Spanish Jews who chose to leave are today known as Sephardic).

The Royal Chapel of Granada, from the outside (where photos are permitted)
Upon their deaths (Isabella in 1504, Ferdinand 12 years later) the Monarchs were buried in the Royal Chapel, which was built under their instructions. We visited the inside for the first time – only €3.50 for us old folks – and I was surprisingly moved by our visit. We saw the altarpiece built for their funeral, one of those towering, overpowering works filled with Christian symbolism (and no small amount of gold and silver). (Sorry, no photos allowed!) This one was a collaboration of talented Italian and Spanish artists: multiple tiers of statues and sculptures. Truly impressive (if a bit overdone, IMHO.) By contrast, the Monarchs’ remains, in an underground crypt just below, were simple and bare – no nonsense, just lead coffins.

A portion of the massive altarpiece in the mausoleum of the Catholic Monarchs
(photo credit to larkin81 on Flickr)
The coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, along with those of two of their children, Juana and Philip.
(photo credit to
Also on display were artifacts and collections of the Monarchs: Queen Isabella’s silver crown; Ferdinand’s sword (the pommel was small, he must have had tiny hands!); Isabella’s prayer book, and the silver chest that contained the jewels she hocked to fund Columbus’ trip to the New World. Paula and I were both deeply impressed by these objects, once possessed by Monarchs who were pivotal to world history. My modern morality is outraged at the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews (F and I established the Inquisition in Spain), and especially at the treatment of the natives in the New World for centuries after. But (for better or worse!) much of the world we live in now was determined by, or at least involved, these two (their fifth child, Catherine, married King Henry VIII of England, and his later desire to divorce her lead to his suppression of Catholicism and decades of unrest in England, spurring the Puritans to escape to the New World; all of which still influences our times now).

And this is why we enjoy traveling in Europe! Tracing our roots back. Not just our personal roots, but our cultural roots – nothing gives a true feeling of history, of how we came to be who and how we are, than actually being in the spot where stuff happened. And for us, most of it happened in Europe.

Another view from the Plaza de San Nicolas.
We're now back in Seville, and it feels like coming "home." We're enjoying this city more than ever. With only a few days left before our time in the EU is up, every trip through the city evokes a sort of pre-nostalgia -- places that are so familiar show up in a whole new way, now that we're close to leaving!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

2019 and the End of Our Times (in Seville)

Ah, it’s still so early in the year, and we have already so much to write about! We’ve had two sets of visitors in the last few weeks (my daughter Nina, and our friends Sue & Allan); we’ve spent 3 days in Granada and the fabulous Alhambra; we roamed the streets of Seville on New Year’s Eve and ate the 12 grapes; and we’ve just now returned from four days in Malta with Sue and Allan. More on that later. But this posting is about the parade.

Christmas in Spain (and most of Europe) is more low-key than in the US. Most of the European countries are Christian – Roman Catholic, in fact – so this Holy Day has great significance religiously. Socially, though, not so much. Family and friends gather and celebrate, the churches are well decorated, and of course we’vealready mentioned the public (and private!) beléns, or Nativity scenes. But the big blow-out day here in Spain is the 6th of January, Three Kings Day, or Día de los Reyes.

Anticipation runs high before the parade starts...
The Kings are the men (referred to as “wise men” in the King James Version of the bible, from the original Greek word “magi”) who came from “the East” to visit the Baby Jesus shortly after his birth. Other parts of the Old Testament refer to kings coming to worship. Whatever, the 6th of January is the Epiphany, the day the three fellows arrived from the East with gifts for the Christ Child. While it is part of the Christian calendar, in the US it’s not really celebrated; but here in Spain it's the day when children receive their gifts.

The night before, on the 5th, Spanish kids write their letters to the Kings (not Santa Claus), asking for their gifts. And, the next morning, Kings' Day, the gifts appear. So, yeah, it’s a big day here! And it’s generally celebrated with a parade. We were enchanted by the parade when we were here two years ago, and I have certainly been looking forward to it.

Horses are a traditional part of Spanish culture, so we'll start there.
And what's a parade without a marching band?
It was a gorgeous sunny winter day, the sun low in the sky, a couple of hours before sunset. The warm tones in the light set off the stone buildings, many painted in the mustard and dark brick colors that seem to be a signature of Seville. Excitement was building, as was the crowd. Lots of kids, of course, many getting lost underfoot amidst all the adults (and in retrospect, there seemed to be a great many adults for a kid’s parade!) We were all straining to see far down the street where distant blue and yellow lights flashing promised something happening.

The first of the Three Kings (aka Wise Men). Nice horsies!
Finally it arrived: marching bands, groups of men in uniform, other groups of people in costumes. Three men on horseback in blackface and turbans (the Kings were from the East, right? East of Bethlehem is… Baghdad? Arabia? So dark skin and turbans are in keeping with the story.) More horses, most carrying Kings, reminded me that there are some very fine horses in Seville. (Horses are not something we see, or think about much, but horsemanship has been a powerful tradition in Spain for a long time, and nowhere are these traditions more honored than in Andalusia, with Sevilla as its capital.) More marching groups, all in blackface with turbans, laughing. Clearly, everyone was having a good time!

A whole phalanx of Kings!
Then come the floats. Many had Nativity themes, others fantasy creatures, and some it was just hard to tell. But every one had a gaggle of kids – and a few adults – throwing candy into the crowd, to cries of “Carmelo! Carmelo!” It was wild. The floats were tall, maybe 15 or 20 feet off the ground, well above the crowds, and as they passed the occupants would dump armloads of hard candies on the heads of those of us below. Do you have any idea how much a hard candy from 20 feet up can hurt? (And some of those kids on the floats were really flinging them down!)
A camel theme was popular this year.

As candies covered the ground, I was careful not to lift my feet, to avoid crushing anything, especially the fingers of the kids scrabbling to collect the caramelos. And I understood why some of the folks had covered their shoes with plastic… to avoid tracking smashed candies into their home!

A moon-shot theme, complete with... aliens?

Oh no, another camel!
And the air is filled with candies!

Finally the last float passes, the last candies are thrown. And then come the police cars, and the municipal trucks, followed by the sweepers, forming a parade of their own. Some are city employees, I’m sure; others hired just for the day. With wide brooms they move along both sides of the street, pushing wrappers and loose candies towards the center. Next, the big street sweeping machines, two and three abreast, wave after wave of them. After each wave the street is a bit cleaner, but even after the fourth set of machines have passed it’s clear the street will take a few days to recover!

And as the sun sets, the final act of the parade, the street sweepers! 

Then we slowly make our way back to our apartment, not far but the going is slowed by the dispersing crowd. The cafes are full, everyone in a jolly mood; and lines are forming at the confectioners shops as people stop on their way home for a King’s Day treat for the special dinner they will be having tonight. 

(Two days later the streets look normal. Hurray for the cleaning crew!) 

As for us, we are soon to depart Spain, as our 90 days are up and we must leave Europe.  We will be heading for our winter quarters in North Africa, in Morocco.  First a month in the coastal city of Essaouira, then some time in Fez, and our final month in Antalya, Turkey.
Stay tuned!

By the way, if you are viewing this on a mobile device, you may want to check the web site directly; at the top right of the page is a link to an interactive map of our travels, by Travellerspoint. (Or, click here!)

Monday, December 24, 2018

¡Feliz Navidad Desde Sevilla!

Sending you all love and Christmas cheer from Sevilla - Paula and Paul

Yes, it’s Christmas time! And around Christmas, Sevilla really shines. When we were here in 2016 we were blown away by the Christmas activities and that, really, is why we wanted to return this year.

First off, Christmas in Europe in general tends to be a bit lower key than in the US. What’s missing? The obsessive buy, buy, buy that seems to be such a large part of the holiday experience in the US. Oh sure, stores here have sales this time of year, and window displays remind us of all the fine gifts available. But I get the sense that people here (by which I mean Europe in general, and Seville in particular) are more invested in the spirit of the holidays: being together with family and friends, having special foods and drinks only seen at this time of year, that kind of thing. And of course, Spain being a very Catholic country, celebration of one of the more important religious events of the year, too.

One of our favorite plazas; now, with Christmas lights!
And then there are the Christmas carols, or lack thereof. Most stores don’t have music systems installed, so we almost never hear canned music while shopping. There are a few exceptions, though, and they always seem to play classic American music, including classic Christmas songs. (Really! It’s like 1982 all over again.) In fact, most of the music we hear in public, playing in casual cafés, is American soft rock from the 80s. Maybe that’s what the hip young folks here want to hear. (Or maybe because I notice when I hear American music, but don’t notice when I hear Spanish music? Always a possibility…)

We went out last Saturday night, walked around the cathedral, looked at the Christmas lights. Just us and most of the inhabitants of Seville! It was massively crowded, almost difficult to move. Fabulous! We took a few photos of the lights, but it was hard to manoeuver. So we came back on Monday night. What a difference! This time, the streets were almost deserted.

Crowds along Avenida de la Constitución, looking at the Christmas lights

First view of the three crowns!

Monday night we got a good look at the Three Crowns, a municipal Christmas decoration that is new this year (for us, at least). The Three Crowns represent the three Kings, or the three wise men. The Three Kings are really at the heart of Christmas celebration here in Spain; so much so that not much of a fuss is made over December 25 (the birth day of the Baby Jesus, in the Christian tradition). The real celebration happens on January 6, the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, which here is called Three Kings Day: the day the three kings (wise men) came from the East to visit the baby Jesus. That’s the day gifts are exchanged, and the day of the big parade. (At least, last time we were here there was a big parade; we won’t comment on it this year until after it’s actually happened…)

All three crowns

The Blue One, seen from inside the Red One

La Giralda peeking over the rooftops (always exciting to see!)
And at the far end of Avenida de la Constitución, a Christmas tree in lights!

Anyway, holiday season here is in full swing, and we are certainly enjoying it!

Every neighborhood has its own style of lights.

The crowns during the day. Not so interesting!

Christmas Beléns
Part of the holiday celebrations here in Spain revolve around the Nativity scenes, or beléns. The city itself has one on public display, as do many private businesses. While we know very few residents here, it’s clear that many homes have a belén as well. And whereas Nativity scenes in the States generally are limited to the Baby Jesus and his adoring parents, as well as a few other adoring individuals (like the aforementioned wise men), the style here is to build an entire pre-Christian village, including scenes from village life (with considerable license given to creative additions...)

A public belén provided by a private business.

And to help people build the belén of their dreams, there is a whole Christmas market around the Cathedral dedicated to providing scale models: of people, buildings, animals, fruits and vegetables, loaves of bread… Some are animated: sawing wood, driving nails; shaking out rugs; kneading bread; cutting meat. And water features, with running streams and ponds (one year I saw, on the shelves for sale, grey/black cotton wool clouds with tiny sprayers to create a rain storm). I am told there are collectors who dedicate entire rooms to village scenes, populated with figurines collected over many holiday seasons. I think of it like an extensive model train layout, with a more focused theme.

Seville's Christmas Market around the cathedral

This market is closed now, but it will be open tomorrow!

Pretty much any tiny thing you might want for your scene is available here!

While we have not traveled widely in Spain, from what I’ve read these extensive beléns are popular all over Spain. People generally unpack them around October, to find out what may have been lost or broken in storage. Of course, most people will want to extend the belén, add another figurine or two, maybe a camel; possibly an elephant. And perhaps a few more tiny loaves of bread…

Need some more tiny rolls, a baket of eggs, or a realistic bread oven for your belen?

Another, somewhat unconventional nativity scene.
Detail from yet another nativity scene. Moorish buildings in the background, Egyptian pyramid up front. Why not?!

Gates to the city -- Jerusalem?

At last, the creche with the Baby Jesus! 

Wherever you are this Holiday season, no matter what you are doing, and whatever your traditions may be, we wish you all the best this Christmas and on into the New Year!