Monday, February 17, 2020

Around the World in 1080 Days

Two weeks. We’ve been back in Montpellier for two weeks. We’ve been having a good time, exploring our new location and linking up with friends in town. And we’re planning some trips, including one to Paris later this week. But, we’re not really done yet with Sevilla…

Archivo de Indias, the Archives of the Indies, a magnificent 16th C building in its own right, houses the Magellan exhibition.

Just before we left Spain we took in a special exhibit about Magellan and his astonishing voyage around the world. This, you see, is the 500th anniversary of his trip. And, he left from—and his expedition (what was left of it) returned to—Sevilla. So it’s completely appropriate that the city of Sevilla celebrate this anniversary.

Sad looking lion in the garden in front of los Archivo de Indias

What do you know of Magellan? He was the first to circumnavigate the globe, he was killed somewhere along the way and didn’t finish the voyage. There’s a GPS company named after him. Also, I think, an investment fund. Quick: what was the name of the captain who did finish the voyage? Yeah, he was pretty important in the whole affair, but no one remembers him.

The exhibition was held, appropriately enough, in Archivo de Indias, the Archives of the Indies, the building housing all the documentation of Spain’s explorations (and exploitations) of the New World. We’d seen this building often enough (it’s too big to miss!) but had never gone inside. What an amazing place! Open, expansive, colorful marble everywhere. A broad, beautiful staircase leads to the expansive exhibition area upstairs.

Paula admires the marble.

Nobody does excess like the classic Spanish; this is a bit restrained for them!
Something I didn’t know, but which makes sense, is that the Spanish government had a whole department devoted to the logistics of ocean voyages, which had become quite numerous once Columbus showed the riches to be had. It was this department that selected the ships, equipped them, and found the men to sail them, all based on the considerable experience gained in selecting and equipping voyages into both the known and unknown over the past few decades. It was this department that took on the task of selecting and equipping Magellan’s ships. And, of course, buried in the basement archives were the records of every length of cord, spar, and barrel of water purchased or re-purposed for this expedition.

Original crew list, from the archives
An important aspect of this voyage that never occurred to me is the social and political context. The world had been divided up by Spain and Portugal, the major European powers of the day. Without actually knowing what was there, a line had been drawn on the globe by the monarchs of the two countries and approved by the pope. Spain had everything to be found on one side of the line, and Portugal on the other. (And that is why most of Central and South America speaks Spanish today, and Brazil speaks Portuguese—that land mass was on Portugal’s side of the line).

Last Will and Testament of Ferdinand Magellan, Notarized
The rivalry between the two countries was intense. Vast commercial interests—the spices of the Indies—were at stake. And these spices, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and mace, were like the petroleum of today. Riches and power for those that had it, second nation status for those that didn’t. The Portuguese were fabulous navigators, and while exploring their part of the world had found a route to what was then known as the Spice Islands (the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia). But that was their route, and Spain was NOT invited to use it! Spain had a tremendous economic incentive, then, to find its own way to these incredibly lucrative lands.

So along comes Ferdinand Magellan. Portuguese by birth and training, he switched sides and citizenship and started sailing for the Spanish. He had a great idea and an incredible plan—leave the Portuguese alone, and get to the islands by sailing west instead of east. The world, after all, was round; that had been known to the ancient Greeks. What he didn’t know, though, was the actual size of the earth… and that there was a whole ocean that he was not aware of. Still, he convinced the Spanish, and they started gearing up for his expedition. Unfortunately, distrust due to Magellan’s country of birth would prove of be a problem for some of the captains and many of the men in the crew.

Still, on 20 September 1519 the five ships and 175 men left the docks of Sevilla.

Models of the five ships: Santiago, San Antonio, Conception, Trinidad, and Victoria (although not in that order!)

The exhibition, in a vast darkened room, started with models of the five ships, each with a brief description of size, capabilities, and cost (and make no mistake, this was a commercial enterprise, funded by investors, and every maravedi* was counted). 

Marvedi: once a currency, by the 16th century it was an accounting term used as a common denominator among all the currencies in use in the world at the time. Its value in today’s currencies is hard to determine.

Laid out on the carpeted floor of the display space were lines—five at first—indicating the course of the ships. The lines wound around the space, moving from room to room. Periodically there were date markers: DÍA/DAY 36; and occasionally small silver models of the ships. Along the route the number of small models, and the number of the lines, diminished as the ships were lost or destroyed.

Lighted, glass-fronted alcoves in the darkened rooms highlighted various aspects of the long and often frightening journey. There are some astonishing original documents on display, such as a page from the original crew’s list, and a notarized copy of the last will and testament of Ferdinand Magellan—documents from the massive archives in the basement of this same building.

Here we are, day 46, still with all five ships...

Another view of the scene on the wharf of 16th C Sevilla
 We track the expedition’s progress along the east coast of South America, the loss of the Santiago due to mutiny, and the explorations looking for a passage to the (the as-yet unsuspected--and therefore unnamed) Pacific Ocean. Another ship, the San Antonio, disappears before a passage is found. Thirty-four days after entering the straits the remaining three ships emerge into what even today is considered a frightening and formidable obstacle, known as the Southern Ocean. Still, on the day they managed to make it out of the narrow strait the sea looked pretty calm, so Magellan called this new ocean the Pacific. The joy of finding a passage soon turned to dismay as the ships and crew faced 40 straight days of constant storms, with high winds and massive seas.

The four ships enter the strait, where they'll be for 37 more days.
Two months later the starving and badly beat-up crew came upon an island, and eventually made it to what today is known as the Philippines. It was here that Magellan was killed. He foolishly got involved in local politics and attacked a tribe as part of an effort to convert them to Christianity.  

The expedition crossing the open ocean.
The expedition went on without him, of course, but eventually they had to lose another ship. Starvation, disease, and massive crew dissatisfaction left them without the manpower for all three ships, so one, the Conception, was abandoned and burned. Later the Trinidad was attacked by Portuguese and wrecked, leaving only the Victoria to finally arrive in the Spice Islands.

These little (6 inch?) sculptures throughout the exhibition highlighted the fears and difficulties faced by the crew: Cold (top left); Wonder and Fear of the night sky; the Boredom of being becalmed (lower left).
Finally, the Victoria headed across the Indian Ocean laden with cloves en route home. It took them another 3-1/2 months to get to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. At this point things took on a new and more serious obstacle: while these waters were well known, and the route back to Spain clear, this was the part of the world that had been given to the Portuguese, and they would not be kind to a Spanish ship.

The Victoria rounding Cape of Good Hope
Another six weeks on the open ocean and the Victoria approached the Cape Verde Islands, commanded by the Portuguese. Desperate for water and other supplies, the captain sent the ship’s boat ashore. It was immediately impounded by Portuguese officials, and so the Victoria reluctantly left to avoid capture.

What was at stake was not just the extremely valuable cargo of spices, which the Portuguese would have loved to take, but the immensely important reports of the entire voyage, including the navigational directions for the all-important straits at the tip of South America. And, of course, the fact that they had found a route to the Indies by sailing west, not east—proof that the world was, indeed, round, and much bigger than anyone had suspected. And, last but certainly not least, their very lives may well have been lost if captured.

Nothing to do but push on to Spain. So, finally, on 5 September 1522, a single ship out of the five that left, carrying 18 men of the 175 who had started out, sailed up the Guadalquivir River to the docks of Sevilla. Commanding the ship was Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a name that deserves to be recognized as much as that of Magellan.

Model of the Victoria, captained by Elcano. TIny little thing....
Eventually some of the crew members who had been left at various ports did return to Spain; three years later the total number of returned men reached 35 or so (including the dozen men from the Victoria that had been abandoned to the Portuguese in Cape Verde.)

Interestingly enough, the voyage was considered a commercial success, if we overlook the loss of most of the men. Accounts show that the cargo of the one ship, all the cloves carried by the Victoria, sold for slightly more than the cost of equipping the entire original expedition. The more than 8.3 million maravedis spent/invested returned about 5.4% over three years. Not great by today’s standards, but then, there were those sailing directions for a new, non-Portuguese route to the riches of the Spice Islands…

The accounts. Don't know what a marvedi is worth, but 8 million of them is a lot!
We left the exhibition stunned and amazed. It was extraordinary, in both presentation and content. And this was what, our fourth visit to Sevilla? We’ve accumulated at least eight months in this historic and vibrant city, and still find it full of surprises!

What’s next? In a few days we’ll make a quick trip to Paris, to catch the closing of its Leonardo da VInci exhibition. We’ll ride the TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse—High Speed Train) from Montpellier and get a room for a few days. We got night-time tickets: our time slot is 5AM! Should be fun. Read all about it here, soon!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

We're Back in France! version 2

One of the aspects of Blogger, the bogging tool we use, is that it has many features, only some of which actually work. It turns out that embedded video is one of those non-functional features. Sorry for the confusion, but this version of the “We’re back in France!” blog should be complete (whereas the first one may not have been!)

Yes, after a brief three-day stopover in Marseille, we are back in Montpellier. 

And very glad to be here! It feels like home now. And, here on the opening days of February, the weather has been gorgeous. The sky is clear, and this afternoon has been just extraordinary. The light is sharp and clear… this is the fabled light of Provence—la luminosité—that has attracted so many artists to the south of France. Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, Marc Chagall, among many. In spite of all the times we’ve visited the south of France, I’ve never experienced such clarity.

And we especially appreciate the illumination it gives to our view of the city from our new 7th floor apartment. In addition to large windows around the rooms that provide good views of the city, we have a small balcony. Not much room, but it gives a feeling of being suspended out over the street!

View from the balcony. The pillow-y roof of the train station dominates, with the spire of the ever-present St. Anne's off to the left...
We expect to stay in this apartment for at least six months. We’re settling in! After all these years of moving every few months, we are both looking forward to putting down rootlets, of getting involved in our new community. From our previous visits we know people, other ex-pats and a few locals. Now we have a chance to get involved in local activities, do more travel in this region of the Languedoc, and develop more personal relationships. We've got a lot ahead of us!

Marseille, France’s second largest city 

View of the cruise port (the commercial port has been moved up the coast)

We will be having more to say about our new residence, and our return to Montpellier, but first we have some catching up to do!

Marseille has never been of particular interest to us. It’s just down the coast from Montpellier (170 km, 105 miles), France’s second-largest city, the largest port in France (and second or third in Europe), a cultural crossroads, right across the Mediterranean from France’s colonies in North Africa. And a long history of crime and corruption, with a well-deserved reputation for grit and dirt. In fact, I’d heard that crime and the underworld was so embedded in Marseille that during World War II, even though the Germans occupied the southern half of France, there were areas of Marseille that not even the Nazis dared enter. And in the end, there were some areas near the waterfront that they just dynamited.

But, the best route from Montpellier to Seville and back is through the airport at Marseille. So, we figured on spending a few days in the city.

We found Marseille to be an amazing city, a truly wonderful experience. It—the city—has come through some changes over the last few decades, as it’s slowly thrown off its reputation as a dirty, crowded crime center. It’s an ancient city—humanity started settling here 2600 years ago; there were the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans (of course!). Its natural harbor on the Mediterranean has made it a major trading center since forever. (So, yeah, it’s a sailor’s town!)

Prior to arriving in a new place, we always like to do some “original” research so we’ll have an idea of what we’ll find there. For Marseille, we watched the movie The French Connection, the first little bit of which is set in the Marseille of 1971. (We’d already seen the Netflix series Marseille, with Gerald Depardieu. The plot is ordinary, but there are some exquisite aerial views of the modern city.)

We took the bus to the city from the airport, which is a goodly distance out. Our host kindly met us at the bus/train station, and we walked the 20 minutes or so to our new temporary home. He mentioned the Germans dynamiting the neighborhood, which was the one where we would be staying. And, more recently, in an attempt to create Marseille’s own version of the Champs-Élysées, parts of that now-rebuilt neighborhood were bulldozed to make way for the boulevard.

What a great introduction to where we would be staying! At least it was all downhill from the train station. Well, except for right at the end, where there were several long steep flights of stairs. We were glad to finally arrive!

But what struck me immediately upon our arrival was… this was a scene from The French Connection! In the opening scenes of the movie we follow a fellow as he gets up from his table at the La Samartine café; we watch him watch a couple of other characters, buy a baguette at a boulangerie, and enter his apartment building. He checks his mail; then sees a man on the stairs with a gun.

Opening shot from the movie The French Connection, 1971.
La Samaritaine today. They cleaned the building!!
 We enter the building with our host and see the same narrow, rundown hallway, the same old, funky wooden mailboxes mounted high on the wall just inside the door, the same few stairs that turn left at the end of a short, dingy corridor. I look around, worried, and check quickly to make sure there is no man with a gun on the stairs. There isn’t; we’re ok. But man, that entryway got my attention every time we returned to our apartment!

Here, let’s compare. First, a brief clip from The French Connection, the 1971 film directed by William Friedkin. Then, photos of our apartment building.

Entering our apartment... nobody on the stairs...

View from the stairs.

Le Panier
The neighborhood where we stayed is called Le Panier, the basket (why that??). Bloggers and the guide books rave about it. It’s a cute area, funky and artsy, plenty of interesting shops and bistros (most of which seem to be closed in February!). A big draw in Le Panier is the street art, specifically graffiti. Many of the area’s walls are decorated by colorful and fanciful spray-can art.

Graffiti art in Le Panier

Day and Night (domes of Cathédrale La Major in the background)
Our landmark when returning home--our apartment was just down the street from this handsome guy!

And not ALL the art in Le Panier is graffiti art!

             The City

The old port (Le Vieux Port) now full of modern yachts. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde dominates the city.

Those damn locks! Very popular all over Europe: declare your love by inscribing your names on a padlock and locking it somewhere in public, ultimately creating a real nuisance. The City of Marseille has taken a proactive stand by providing an official place for such locks. Marseille is for lovers!(?)

As a major port, Marseille has long been a crossroads where people of many cultures meet and mix. This cross fertilization has created an exciting, open dynamic in the city that is most obvious in the many colorful markets. This indoor spice market was fascinating!

And right outside, fantastic olives amid the bustle of the streets.

The wrought-iron balcony railings and louvered shutters that let in air but keep out the powerful summer sun are hallmarks of Marseille architecture.

The fantastic Palais Longchamp. built the mid-1800s to celebrate the construction of the Canal de Marseille, bringing fresh water to the city. A very trippy place!

View from the top. Note the Basilica in the distance!
Seen from the train station.

Across Le Vieux Port at night.

             The Basilica
Built on a high rock outcropping, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde dominates the skyline. We brashly thought we’d hike up there, but Paula identified the bus (#60) going up there, so we figured we’d maybe walk back and take the bus up. Best 3€ we’ve ever spent! It’s really steep. (And in the end, we rode back down, too.)

Seen from the parking lot (where the bus left us)

The view from the basilica is, of course, quite amazing, providing an overview of the city, the harbor, and the islands immediately offshore. But the view from inside is even more amazing. The entire interior is done in fantastically detailed mosaics, now recently restored (2001-08). The tiny tiles are of Venetian glass, not stone, and appear to glow on their own (in fact, the dome seems to be translucent and illuminated from without). And one interesting detail: the many ship mobiles, strings of model sailing ships hung from the ceiling, confirm that this is, indeed, a long-established port city.

And, those red and white marble arches are strongly--and strangely--reminiscent of the great mosque of Cordoba. (See our blog about that here, with more photos here.)

The 11 meter (27ft) gold plated statue of Madonna and Child tops a 53.5 meter (175f) bell tower

The interior of the Basilica is amazing! The large dome glows.

Close up above the altar.

A menorah in beautiful mosaic

Hanging boat mobiles throughout the interior honor the seafaring culture

So that was our introduction to the city of Marseille. There is much that we missed, and some things we’ve left out here, like the magnificent Cathédrale La Major. (It’s a mystery to me why Marseille gets to have two such incredible cathedrals, since they are both so amazing.) Or the highly-rated MuCEM – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. We stepped inside, but didn’t have time to explore. Then there’s the ancient forts guarding the entrance to the old port; Le Maison Empereur, world’s most intriguing hardware store; and the several international markets.

We’ll just have to go back!

Cathedrale La Major, the other great cathedral in Marseille, having its facade cleaned.

Monday, January 27, 2020

A Day in Carmona

Panorama of the new town from the entry gate.

Carmona is a small town about half-way between Seville and Córdoba. It’s served by frequent buses from Seville—and rather infrequent buses from Córdoba. Our first thought was to stop there on our way back from Córdoba, but the only two buses from Córdoba to Carmona left at  8AM—too early! and 2PM—too late! So we saved the trip to Carmona for another day.

Now, having finally visited Carmona, we’re glad we waited. It’s larger and more interesting than we’d thought!

The city is located on a hill, a natural fortification, very steep on three sides with a long gentle slope facing west. There’s evidence that people have been living here, and fortifying that western slope, for a very long time. The Romans built massive walls which were reinforced by everyone who came after—the Visigoths, the Moors, the Spanish. The old town has a very impressive entrance!

But getting there was a bit harder than we thought. First we had to find the right bus station in Seville. We’ve spent a lot of time in this city and we know our way around pretty well. But once at the bus station we discovered, oops, this ain’t it! It was another 10 minutes’ walk, but we had plenty of time, even with fumbling around asking which bus we needed.

The spire of Iglesia de San Pedro (the Church of St. Peter)

The 30-minute ride to Carmona was pleasant enough. Then it was a 10-minute uphill walk to the massive gates, and the tourist office, conveniently located right in front. (Whenever we arrive in a new place, we always like to start at the tourist office: get a map, ask about what’s happening, what’s worth seeing.)

The massive fortified entrance to the old town.

The nice ladies in the office suggested we pay the two Euros (one each, with our “senior discount”!) to tour the fortifications, located right above the office. The view from the top of those massive gates made the whole trip worthwhile! As we gazed out over the fertile plains, impressive even with the haze (and air pollution, sadly), and the towers and domes of the old town, we were glad we’d dedicated a whole day to Carmona.

Part of the massive fortifications above the entrance gate.
A sweet little casita tucked into the old walls.
Narrow streets and tall church spires... must be Spain!
The 15th Century Convent of Santa Clara
The chapel in the Convent of Santa Clara.

One of our inspirations for going to Carmona was to see the azulejos (traditional tiles) in the courtyard of the Convent.  Every Sunday in Seville there is an art show and market in front of the Bellas Artes Museum, and one artist, Elisabet Conlin, does magnificent watercolors of traditional Spanish tiles. We had to see the originals that had inspired her work!

Some examples of tiles from the convent:

And Paula's watercolor response (which of the above tiles was the inspiration?)

Another view of the convent, this one with a stork. Note the nest on the spire in the lower right.
And, at the far (east) end of town, another magnificent gate.

The same gate seen from the outside.

Looking out the city towards the vast planes to the east...

             Finally… Christmas!

(I'm using a new video editor—it took me a long time to figure it out and finish this video!)
Christmas in Spain—as we have discovered repeatedly—is pretty low key. The big deal here is Three Kings Day, aka the Epiphany, the day in the Christian tradition when the three wise men met the newly-born Christ Child. It’s celebrated in Seville by a massive parade that encircles the town, dominated by huge floats with brightly-dressed folks throwing candies into the crowd. But, ‘nuff said, just watch the video. Oh, since the parade celebrates the Three Wise Men, who were from “the East,” there are always men in blackface representing the kings. The Spanish have a very different history from those of us in the USA, and nobody has a problem with white folks representing darker folks in this way.

Ah—and what was different about this year was, first, that we watched from a different spot, giving a less-attractive background to photos and videos. Also, this year we got a map of the parade route and found it lasted at least six hours. After dark we headed across town to see the parade again, this time in the dark.  Just… watch the video.

We've been having a lot of rain here in Seville. The weather has been rather good, warmer than last year with lots of gorgeous sunny days. Some rain at the beginning... so maybe it's appropriate that we get some rain at the end, eh?

In a few days we'll fly to Marseille, which seems to be recovering from its gritty reputation.  So stay tuned!

                Parting shot:
We talked about feria, the Springtime festival, in this blog, but for Sevillanos it's a year-round concern. Passing by our favorite feria store we noticed the displays had changed.

Feria is still months away, but it's never too early to start getting ready...