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!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Back in Sevilla -- And a Visit to Córdoba

 Yes, we’re back! And very glad to be here!

We enjoyed our time in Alicante, but for me, something just wasn’t right. We had a great apartment with a wonderful view; the ocean was right there with the castle off to the side. We had our favorite restaurants, and knew several other Americans there. We enjoyed using our tram cards to explore the coast north of town. But still, Alicante was missing something.

Now that we’re back, it’s as I suspected. While Alicante had its origins with the Romans and the Moors, it is essentially a recent city. I expect in the ‘50s & ‘60s there wasn’t much there; most of the town seems to have been built in the boom days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when they just couldn’t build beachfront apartments fast enough. 

Sevilla, on the other hand, was a Moorish capital in the 11th Century. After the discovery of the New World, all the riches Spain took (read: extorted) passed through Sevilla. The galleons carrying tons of gold and silver – and tobacco – came up the Guadalquivir River (it’s silted up now,  but was navigable then) and were off-loaded here. Madrid was the capital of Spain, then as now, and all the good stuff was shipped on. But no doubt there were plenty of “middle men,” packers, shippers, and tax collectors. Sevilla became very very rich. In the 16th Century it was a powerful, beautiful, elegant city. It may be less powerful today, but it is no less elegant or beautiful!
A rather nice modern building in Sevilla

And since we’ve been here before –we spent three months around the Christmas holidays here in 2016 – it’s all familiar. We know our way around. No mean feat, that, since the roads are short, narrow, and winding. A real maze. (I didn’t want to go out alone for the first month we were here for fear I’d never find my way back!) But now we wander the cobbled streets in confidence, admiring the buildings (and discovering some new, really exquisite ones).


Somehow we missed getting to this ancient city last time around, so this time we made it a point to visit it sooner rather than later. It’s a pretty city, with the usual narrow, winding cobbled streets. But we’ve got those here in Sevilla, and more and better of them! What Sevilla doesn’t have is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, known (more accurately) as the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. Started in the 9th Century by the Moors who occupied Andalusia, it was added on to several times, and eventually was said to serve 100,000 worshipers. In 1236 the Reconquista, or retaking of Iberia by Christians, arrived in Córdoba, and the Spanish added a Renaissance cathedral nave right in the middle of the mosque.

Originally the minaret for the mosque, now a bell tower for the cathedral.

View from the tower. Note the bells...

The Cordoba cathedral, plunked down in the middle of (what was) the Cordoba mosque.

OK, so that’s the Wikipedia part. Paula, in an email to some friends, said I’d “work my magic” on the presentation of our visit. I find I can’t improve on what she said:

I don’t know why it took us three trips to Sevilla to finally get to Córdoba. It’s about an hour train ride from here. I had seen photos of the iconic red and white striped arches [of the mosque]. I was breathless and swept off my feet with the grandeur, magnificence and size of this Mosque Cathedral. Unlike the Alcazar here or the Alhambra in Granada, this Byzantine structure contains many styles of architecture from Roman to Gothic. It is beyond huge….Inside there are over 850 marble and jasper columns connected with arches. I felt like I was walking in a candy cane forest! It was the day before a Spanish holiday and we had the place mostly to ourselves.

The candy cane forest! Astonishing, really.
It’s been added on to by the Moorish rulers to the size of 180 by 130 meters (200 by 150 yards – a football field is 100 by 50 yards, so that’s six American football fields!) for the entire grounds of orange trees and Tower – which we climbed.
The Catholic altars and statutes outline the perimeters inside except for one wall that still has the Islamic and Arabic architecture including the center prayer niche (the Mihrab – ed.), with gold tiles, calligraphy and mosaics. And arches. Lots and lots of arches.

Not even this panorama can give a hint.
In the 800s Cordoba was the largest city in the world – larger than Damascus or Byzantium – with 300,000 people! That’s five 0s. London and Paris had a population of 20,000 each at the time.
Mirhab of the mosque
Transitioning from mosque to cathedral
Unlike the Alhambra or Alcazar, which were places for the rulers to live (aka palaces), this was a place of worship and prayer. I can only imagine what it sounded like with even 50,000 people inside praying together.

And, of course, we were not the first to find this structure extraordinary. The hall was described as having  "countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria[29] while the people living there found that "the beauty of the mosque was so dazzling that it defied any description."[30]  I found the interior more impressive than the Blue Mosque in Istanbul (and yes, I was so dazzled I'm having trouble describing it, too!).
I like the black and white version also
The part that didn’t work for me so well was the insertion of a Christian cathedral into the middle of this enormous mosque. I found the Christian iconography out of place (plus, the 16th Century Spanish had to slather gold and silver all over everything!). And, it turns out I was not alone in my dismay; no less a personage than the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who had given permission for the construction of the cathedral, commented upon seeing it, "You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace."[38]  (My thoughts exactly!)

The Christian cathedral built entirely within the (former) mosque.
Of course, there’s more to Córdoba than the Mosque–Cathedral, but that was the reason we went. We did have a 20-minute walk from the train station, and found some other aspects of the city to admire.

View of the minaret -- bell tower from outside the walls

2nd Century Roman bridge (used as Long Bridge to Volantis in Game of Thrones)

View of the city walls and a very nice fountain!

Street art, outside an auto repair shop (!)