El Escorial

El Escorial

On our AirBnB host, Marcos’s recommendation, we made the half hour train trip from Madrid to El Escorial, A monastery and palace of the Spanish royal family for the last 500 years, designed by Juan Batista de Toledo, who had previously worked on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

It’s a very pleasant journey, and the only place in Spain that we passed through rugged wilderness. The air is cooler and cleaner up in the hills away from Madrid. All that wilderness probably accounts for the fact that theres also a Royal Hunting Lodge, La Granjilla de la Fresneda, 5 km from the palace complex.

El Escorial has always been a monastery , and still is. It’s also a necropolis for the royal family, it has been a hospital and is at present a boarding school. In a two hour walk through the complex, we saw only a fraction of it. The Basilica is quite magnificent, the Royal Library, containing thousands of priceless antique books, and the Necropolis are gaudily splendid. The royal chambers contain exquisite workmanship, and are little changed since they were lived in. Photographs were forbidden, but a few were taken, perhaps by accident. The exterior design and the overall layout is austere, with little ornamentation, and the surrounding gardens strictly formal.

We also visited La Casita del Infante, built in the 1770s by the Infante Gabriel of Spain, son of King Charles 111, as his private ‘hideaway” to compose and play music. It’s a beautiful miniature nobleman’s residence, surrounded, again, by formal gardens. Surprisingly, and anachronistically, it has a modern bathroom, installed some decades ago, when Queen Elizabeth 11, of England had morning tea there, so that she could pee, if necessary, in the comfort to which she was accustomed!

 

Salamanca

Home on the pig’s back!

We took a longer day trip to Salamanca, 200km from Madrid, near the Portuguese border, about a 2 hour journey each way, which still left plenty of time for sight-seeing. The  Salamanca station is a fair way from the old city, so a taxi to Plaza Mayor was the only sensible thing to do. (Have I mentioned that taxis are really cheap in Spain?)

Salamanca was originally a Celtic town, for centuries BC. Then the Romans were there for a spell. The city was officially founded in the early 1100s and has been renowned as a centre of learning virtually ever since. The university, founded in 1218, is the third oldest western university, and has about 30,000 students.

Franco established Salamanca as the de facto Nationalist capital during the Civil War, and the (Nazi) German and (Fascist) Italian delegations were also there.

When we walked into the famous Plaza Mayor, we were immediately confronted by a life-size sculpture of an elephant balanced on its trunk! We sat in the plaza, had a second breakfast and planned an itinerary for a walk around the town.
There’s an intimidating amount to be seen! The Old Cathedral is magnificent. The New Cathedral (Convento de San Esteban) is mightily impressive too, at least from the outside (it was closed). The entrance facade is intricately sculpted, like a massive stone altar-piece.

I must confess that we were a little fatigued on the day. It was hot, and quite a few places of interest were closed. I can vouch for the excellence of the food and the beer in Salamanca however!

On the way back, we passed through a storm, (at about 180km per hour) which was a thing of beauty, seen against the rolling green hills. Back in Madrid, a few Metro stops brought us back to our apartment in Chueca and, not needing dinner, we relaxed with a couple of craft beers and tapas just across the road, at Bee Beer (recommended!)

 

 

Toledo

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

On our first day back in Madrid, on our way home to Australia, we took ourselves early to the Prado, a palatial building, four stories high with colonnaded walks looking down onto a large central garden. The Prado had also been our first port of call when we arrived in Spain, not realising until we got there that it was Labour Day and the museum was closed! Second time lucky, we enjoyed our fill of art, then caught a train to Toledo, about 75 kilometres away or 33 minutes by train.

Toledo is an ancient fortified hill town , almost encircled by the Tagus river. It was established by the Celts more than 2000 years ago, and followed the usual pattern of being occupied serially by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors from the 8th century to the 11th century, then the Christians (Iberians?)(I’m not sure). It was the seat of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in the mid 1500s. Toledo was famous for the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries. It’s also, famous of course, for the quality of its steel, much sought after for weaponry from Roman times. Every second shop in Toledo has swords and knives on display!

It has a very impressive gothic cathedral, (closed when we were there) and numerous other churches, mosques and synagogues, including El Cristo de la Luz, a small mosque built in the 900s, later converted to a Christian church. We visited the Synagogue of El Transito, also a converted mosque. The Alcazar, a 16th century fortress looms massively over the city.

The most wonderful historical building, we thought, was the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, built by the Catholic monarchs in the late 15th century. It has an exquisite cloister and wonderful sculptured pillars.

We lingered into the evening, enjoyed a relaxed dinner after most of the day-trippers had departed and caught the last train back to Madrid.

 

 

Girona

Creation: Girona Art Museum

We took a day trip by train 100km from Barcelona to Girona, an ancient Catalan town initially settled by the Iberians. The Romans occupied it, then the Visigoths, until the Moors conquered it in 715. Charlemagne reconquered it for the Christians in 785, then it changed hands between the Moors and Christians numerous times until the Moors were driven out in 1015. It was an important Jewish centre from the 12th century, until the Catholic monarchs expelled all the Jews from Catalonia in 1492. Later on it was besieged and occupied by Napoleon.

The Cathedral and churches mostly date from medieval times, though one old church is in fact a Roman temple. The Basilica is beautiful, in the classical style of its time. A long section of the old city walls (besieged 25 times and breached 7 times) remains, and you can walk along them. The River Onyar meanders through the old city, crossed by numerous bridges.

 

We were particularly impressed by Girona Art Museum, full of ancient religious paintings, sculptures, altar-pieces and other beautiful relics. We were struck by the number of rather gruesome depictions of martyred saints, by a pregnant Virgin Mary, and by several depictions of the Madonna squirting breast milk onto some fellow’s face (our religious knowledge failed us, obviously)

 

We had taken the precaution, anticipating (correctly) that Girona would be teeming with tourists, of booking a table for lunch at Aroz y Piex (“Rice and Fish”). We had another memorable seafood meal, again choosing our own assortment of fish and other creatures. A free glass of champagne was provided while we waited for our meal to be cooked. The highlight was a squid-ink paella with bacalao (salted cod) and asparagus.

 

After our lunch we had just settled on a shady bench when a colourful procession of the Bolivian residents paraded past. We followed them out of the town and through a wooded park to a grassy site where they were celebrating the festival of San Isidro.

 

Back in town, strolling around, suddenly a group of musicians appeared, who set themselves up in a plaza and began playing lively Catalan music. The local people dropped everything (literally, in piles on the street) and formed circles to dance. Diana felt moved to join in, which I’ve recorded for posterity!

 

 

As the sun set, while we waited for the train ,we enjoyed tapas and a couple of glasses of the local vermut (vermouth).

 

Barcelona

We caught the fast train up the coast from Valencia to Barcelona, which takes about three and a half hours. A word from the wise: If you’re planning to stay in the Gothic Quarter, the old part of the city (which you should), don’t get off the train at the main station, Barcelona Sants. Sit tight and the train proceeds for another 15 minutes to Barcelona Francia. ­čÖé

Our 16th century apartment, across the street from the Picasso Museum, was a 5-10 minute walk from the station. What an extraordinary place to stay, with 500 year old timber shutters and cupboards, in the middle of a medieval maze of twisting, narrow, cobbled lanes!

Our daughter-in law, Sophia, who’s living in Barcelona at present, had met us at the station. We went for a late lunch at a frantically busy place nearby, where we chose from a huge array of live seafood, which was then cooked and served up within fifteen minutes!┬áAfter an orientation walk and talk around the Gothic Quarter, we went out in the evening for tapas (and rosado) nearby.

 

Next morning we found our way to the Sagrada Familia, surely one of the most amazing buildings on earth! Designed by Antoni Gaudi, in a revolutionary combination of gothic and art nouveau principles, construction of the the cathedral began in 1882. When Gaudi was killed in a tram accident in 1926, the work was about 20% completed. At present it’s estimated to be 70% completed. When finished (in 2026, on the centenary of Gaudi’s death) it will be about twice as tall as at present!

The Sagrada Familia, with 3 million visitors per year, is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, so if you want to see it, book ahead! Admission fees pay for the ongoing construction.

Walking around the outside of the cathedral, it’s very hard to take it in; such a massive, towering structure leaping out of the crowded streets below. The stone seems to be alive, the surfaces, spires, alcoves populated by a throng of divine beings, animals, trees, birds, fruit, lizards, vines, flowers all entwined together. Brilliant flashes of colour on the crucifixes atop the spires and on sculpted fruit and other surfaces are mosaics of venetian glass.

 

To walk inside is to enter the belly of the whale. Again, free-form, irregular shapes abound. Immense columns of stone, designed to resemble trees, support a vaulted roof like a forest canopy (one effect of which is that noise is muted). Stained glass is all around, different hues in the different walls to dramatise the effect of changing light through the day. As Gaudi said, “the sun is the best painter.”

 

 

 

When questioned about how long the cathedral would take to build, Guadi replied “My client is not in a hurry.”

On our last night in Barcelona we took a picnic up to The Bunkers, a high hill on which the resistance placed anti-aircraft guns to defend against Franco’s airforce during the civil war, and watched the sunset. From there, for the first time we were able to get an idea of the scale of the Sagrada Familia.

 

 

The culinary highlight of our trip was was being treated to a a spectacular meal at a restaurant called Uma by our son, Ashley and his wife Sophia. Move over El Bulli!

Another treat was going to a tapas bar called Qimet & Qimet, in El Poble Sec. We had to line up in the street for a while, but then scored a place at the bar right in front of the chef, who was a veritable genius, not only in culinary creation, but he was also able to manage the flow of patrons and keep a running tab of what everyone ate and drank. We ate more than we should have, drank a bottle of rosado, and finished off with an excellent sherry, and got out of there for only 57 euros!

Among other places we liked were an enoteca called La Zona d’Ombra, in the Gothic Quarter, and La Cova Fumada, a frantically busy seafood place in Barceloneta

Continuing the Gaudi theme, which, you may have guessed was one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Spain, we also went to Park G├╝ell, on Carmel Hill. Designed by Gaudi and constructed between 1900 and 1914, the original intention was that it should be a garden estate with 60 houses above the city, but the First World War, among other things intervened, and it became primarily a park, though with just a few residences within. The landscape was designed by Gaudi during his “naturalistic” phase, but incorporating elements of Catalan symbolism and mythology, including the Sala Hipostila, reminiscent of a Greek temple. The roadways, colonnades, walkways and terraces are sculpted from stone, to represent trees and birds’ nests.

 

 

We also visited one of the private residences designed by Gaudi, Casa Batllo, actually a remodelling of an existing house, in 1904. It exemplifies not only his love of organic forms, but his innovative solutions to such problems as light and ventilation. He also designed the furniture and light fittings, though only a little of this is on display. The tour takes in the communal areas at the centre of the house, but there also also seven private apartments, for different members of the family.

 

 

Picasso self-portrait

We walked across the street, of course, to visit the Picasso Museum, which houses over 4,000 of Picasso’s works, and occupies five adjoining medieval palaus (palaces). In the same street, Carrer Montcada is a wonderful museum of indigenous art from around the world. We also made an excursion to the Miro Institute (Fundacio Joan Miro), at the top of a hill called Montjuic. Another extraordinary experience!

 

 

 

 

 

Well that’s Barcelona in a nutshell, but I still have some nice photos left over, so here they are!

Also, I came across this nice little YouTube clip of the Barcelona Gypsy Klezmer Orchestra. Djelem Djelem is the Romani (gypsy) anthem, and klezmer is traditional Ashkenazi Jewish music. Interesting combo!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCUv9W0ViRc

 

Valencia

We caught the train from Ronda to Malaga, of which we saw nothing other than the train station and airport, then spent hours in transit and in an aeroplane getting to Valencia, followed by a long taxi ride through the industrial areas to our AirBnB apartment in the old city. This was the most tedious part of the whole trip. It would have been a much more pleasant journey by train, but there’s no direct connection.

We arrived at our apartment at 10pm, in what we at first took to be a slum or ghetto area. Our host, Ferran, though, assured us that it was a safe neighbourhood, and directed us to somewhere to eat (pigs’ snouts, among other things!) Next morning the area was transformed! We had a relaxed breakfast in the sunshine outside the cafe / bar on the corner, the shutters rolled up on the shops, the streets were teeming with people, including lots of university students, and we discovered that were staying in the beating heart of the old city!

Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138BC. It was occupied by the Moors in 714, the Christians from 1092 to 1102, under El Cid, the Moors again until 1238, then the Catholics again, who expelled 50,000 Moors. The city had a hard time in the Middle Ages, with the Plague and various other epidemics, as well as sundry local wars. From the 15th century it flourished as a trading port, especially due to the silk trade. The Silk Exchange, built in 1482, is a glorious construction. Valencia has had its political and economic ups and downs in the centuries since, but is a booming city now.

On the edge of the old city is an 8 kilometre long park, running along the old river bed towards the port, and finishing at the City of Arts and Sciences, a cluster of magnificent, modernistic edifices, where we rode on  the bicycles provided with our apartment.

The Mercato, or food market in the old city is not to be missed. Beautiful produce, huge piles of pimenton (smoked paprika), saffron by the kilo, an astonishing variety of fish , shellfish and custaceans, butcheries with pigs heads and trotters, rabbits, and wagyu beef, jamon, of course, and hundreds of different cheeses.

We ate very well in Valencia! Most notable was a wonderful degustation at a restaurant called Karak, accompanied, naturally by a bottle of the local rosado. Valencia is justly famous for it’s paella. The local version is traditionally made with a combination of chicken, rabbit and seafood, with perhaps some snails thrown in!

The architecture is simply splendid. The Church of San Juan del Hospital, 800 years old, is built over a 2000 year old Roman temple. The old Roman ruins can be seen around the corner, at the Almoina archaeological centre. There are several magnificent old churches, including, of course the cathedral. Remnants of the old city walls remain, and a couple of monumental city gates. In one, the Torres de Serrans, many of the precious artworks from the Prado, in Madrid, were safeguarded during the Spanish Civil War.

Speaking of art, in Valencia, and in all of the cities we visited, there are wonderful works of street art adorning doorways, security shutters, construction sites and the walls of houses. I don’t think we saw any┬ágraffiti. Waling to lunch at Karak, we passed a group of elderly citizens painting a mural on a construction hoarding, with an interested audience of locals and tourists, offering comments and taking photos.

 

Ronda

The little town of Ronda has known human habitation since neolithic times. It was a Celtic and then a Phoenician settlement, then a Roman fortress. The Visigoths owned it for a couple of hundred years, then it was conquered by the Berbers in 713AD. It flourished as a centre of learning under Islamic rule for 700 years, before falling to the Christian Marquis of Cadiz in 1485. It’s population was decimated during the Napoleonic war, and it was the scene of brutal violence during the Spanish civil war. If you look carefully, you’ll see a room with a balcony above the central arch of the 1000 year-old bridge. This room was used to torture prisoners by Franco’s army and they were then thrown to their deaths from the balcony.

We had only a single night in Ronda, so set off exploring during the afternoon, planning dinner at the customary time for Spaniards of 8.30 or 9.00pm, only to find when we, went looking for a place to eat, that nearly everything had closed! Ronda must be the only town in Spain that goes to bed early.

The main roads in the centre of town are pedestrian plazas, filled with interesting shops and places to eat or drink. (I bought a particularly nice pair of suede shoes). Inevitably there were several jamon boutiques.

Jamon, or Spanish ham is a staple food, and it bears little relationship to English ham. The pigs look like wild boars, and are raised free range. The best jamon comes from pigs raised in oak forests, whose diet consists mostly of acorns. Jamon is cured according to an age-old tradition, then aged to perfection. We were offered jamon at every meal. Every food outlet, it seems has several (or several hundred) legs of jamon hanging on display, and a specially designed apparatus on the counter to hold the jamon just so, while someone whose sole job it appears to be, carves wafer-thin slices for consumption. There are even jamon museums!

Next morning we got up early and tramped down into the valley to look back at the town. When we were halfway across the famous bridge, suddenly a large noisy drone rose out of the gorge towards us. As it approached, I whipped out my phone and started taking photos of it, whereupon it whizzed backwards about 50 metres. About then we realised that the only other people on the bridge were a bevy of attractive actresses, and that we were surrounded by a film crew, waiting to record a flash Porsche driving over the bridge!

Ronda is a spectacular place to visit, and a pleasant change from crowded cities. It also boasts the second-oldest bull-ring in Spain. There was to be a ceremonial bull-fight the day after we left.

One more thing; when I was walking around Ronda, I couldn’t get the Beach Boys song “Help me Rhonda” out of my head.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPnBrK6D26g

 

Old Ronda on the left, the new town on the right

 

Granada

Continuing through Andalusia, our next stop was Granada, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Our taxi inched its way through the impossibly narrow cobbled streets of the old Jewish quarter, to our tiny 16th century apartment. The bed took up one entire room! The little bathroom , obviously added at a later date, looked out into a light well in the centre of the building. A few paces across the “relaxing room”, as our host called it, took us to a shuttered door opening above the street. Cosy, but charming. People must have been smaller 500 years ago!

The streets of the old city zigzag uphill from the river, with stairways crossing between them. Across the river, a twenty minute walk away, through forests and gardens, looms the Alhambra, a Moorish citadel, built in the 13th century on an ancient Roman fortress. It was partially converted in 1492, to become the royal palace of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand ands Isabella. It was in the Alhambra that Columbus was granted his commission to voyage to America.

Unfortunately, we’d failed to book tickets online in advance, to gain entry to the inside of the Alhambra, but we were able to go on a walking tour, which was impressive enough!

Across the road from our apartment was, you guessed it, another Museum of the Inquisition, sharing space in a medieval building which had been a synagogue!

Granada is a small city and, because of the Alhambra, teeming with tourists. Nonetheless we had a very pleasant couple of days there. All the time I was there, I found myself humming the song “Granada”, made famous by Frank Sinatra, but sooo much better sung by Placido Domingo!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaJptuoHOhI

 

 

The Alhambra and Sierra Nevada

 

 

Madrid

We flew into Madrid, toured around, then returned there to fly home. It’s a city of 6.5 million people, so predictably noisy (day and night), crowded, but surprisingly easy to get around, walking in the old city, or whizzing along on the Metro. It also has an extraordinary history, magnificent old buildings, galleries such as the Prado and the Reina Sophia, great food and wine, (which is surprisingly cheap!)

When we arrived, jet-lagged after more than 24 hours travel, we stayed in a small, but comfortable hotel at Sol. It’s convenient, but very busy and swarming with tourists.

 

 

 

 

 

On our way home we stayed in a delightful little AirBnB apartment at Chueca, only 10 minutes walk from Sol, but with a much more local flavour. In fact we seldom saw any other tourists. It’s very lively and interesting, being the gay centre of Madrid.

I highly recommend a couple of day trips (by train) to Toledo and to El Escorial palace / monastery). It’s also really worthwhile to make the longer trip (still just a day excursion) to Salamanca.

 

Seville

Feria

Seville was probably our favourite city; warm, colourful, lively, fascinating! It probably helped, of course that we were there for Feria, the festival of flamenco dancing and music. The streets were full of women and girls in flamenco dresses, and men in their caballero outfits, many on horseback. Horse-drawn carriages trundled by constantly, carrying revellers to and from the Feria grounds. This is the fun side of flamenco. We also went to a traditional flamenco performance, which is an altogether more serious affair, passionate and dramatic, evoking the tragedy of its origin.

The Seville orange, as expected, is the emblem of the city, and most of the streets are planted with orange trees, as are the courtyards of the cathedral and the Alcazar, a palace complex dating back 2000 years, brought to magnificence by the Moorish rulers, only to be rebuilt in opulent Christian style 500 years ago, when the Moors were conquered.

The cathedral, apart from its stupendous medieval architecture, also contains a massive gold altar-piece, a trove of other marvellous art works and the tomb of Christopher Columbus!  Built between 1400 and 1500, on the site of what must have been a magnificent mosque (built in the 1100s), it is the largest gothic cathedral and the third largest church in the world. The Giralda, which was the minaret of the mosque, and is now the bell tower, stands over 100 metres high and has no stairs, but a spiral ramp to the top.

The other outstanding historical site in Seville is the Alcazar, or Reales Alcázares de Sevilla, a Moorish palace and gardens, in the mudejar style, built between the 11th and 16th centuries on the site of a 1st-century building, probably an early Christian basilica. It comprises seven hectares of gardens and seventeen thousand square meters of buildings!

We stayed in a charming little hotel, the Casona de San Andres, which was once a sumptuous family villa, built around two enclosed courtyards, right in the heart of the old city.

We dined very well, and decided to concentrate on tasting Spain’s rosados (ros├ęs), which were without exception, splendid! We also fell easily into the habit of a refreshing glass of the local beer at lunch, and rediscovered the joy of vermouth. Quite a few glasses of Pedro Ximinez sherry were sipped after dinner; the nectar of the gods!

One memorable meal was at a restaurant called El Rinconcillo, which has been in operation since 1670!

Another attraction not to be missed is the Plaza d”Espa├▒a, site of the Ibero-American Exposition in 1929.

Here’s a little sample of proper flamenco!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNhfV_53W7A