travel

Ola Espana!

Soon after we got married, B and decided that our fifth anniversary should be celebrated someplace nice, keeping the exact place open to evolving tastes and interests. As we hit that milestone last year, we unanimously picked Europe, and almost unanimously chose southern Spain. The architectural and cultural clash between the 7th century Moors and their Christian conquistadors in the 1400s, the legend of the infamous Christopher Columbus and the strains of flamboyant flamenco were calling out from somewhere in our subconscious even before we turned a single page of our guidebooks. It was just meant to be.

Eight days. A roller coaster eight days wandering the towns on foot and in busses and trains, packing in things of all different flavours. From cathedrals and mosques to palaces, world-class art and huge public parks, we lost ourselves in everything old town Espana. She delivered, and how! For once, no life changing insights, no pondering about travel and its impact on the world. Just sheer wonder at the magnificent history and architecture and art that Western Europe is steeped in. It’s mind boggling.

Royal Palace (Madrid) – Europe’s third greatest palace

I really tried hard to keep track of the Philips and Charleses who built this 2,800 room opulence from a wooden fortress over a few hundred years, but I gave up. There was just too much gawking to do. The main royal staircase had shallow steps just to slow us down and give us just enough balance to crane our neck every-which-way it wanted to spin. A handful of these zillion rooms are open to the public and a smaller subset is open for photos. So in my memory and diary (and my Rick Steves guidebook) will these couple of hours stay, where I pretended I was a stately princess wandering around nonchalantly. Erm, nope. Just too much gawking for nonchalance.

Just a little sample of the Royal Palace, Madrid

Seville Cathedral (Seville) – The largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest overall

I love chapels, churches and cathedrals of all kinds. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, modern steel, local parish, all kinds. The bigger the better, I have a thing for size. Shh, don’t tell the Moors but this cathedral topped my anticipation list. And what a wonder it turned out to be. Superlatives are normal here. See for yourself.

The largest altarpiece in the world tells the story of Jesus in 24 handmade panels that soar to a lofty ceiling.
The largest single pearl in the world is the body of an angel on the Spanish Crown. 
A monstrous monstrance is a 1000 pounds in weight. Don’t miss the Plateresque lacy ceiling.
The Giralda tower which has a ramp instead of steps because it used to be a minaret and a muezzin used to use a donkey to climb it for his call to prayer.
And the controversial Christopher Columbus lies here, held aloft by knights from Leon, Castille, Aragon and Navarre. He travelled a lot even after he died, finally coming to rest at home.

Royal Alcazar (Seville) – The best example of Mujedar architecture in the world

When the Christian conquistadors took over Seville in the 1200s, they recruited local Muslim artisans to build them a palace. What resulted is the Mujedar architecture, which is Islamic style with Christian elements like kings, shells and leaves which are not allowed in Islamic art. How did the artists feel about this? Nobody knows. I guess when your survival is on the line, you don’t pick idealogical battles anymore.

Mezquita (Cordoba) – A towering cathedral tucked inside a sprawling mosque

I’ve never seen something like this before, and as much as I read about it, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Waves of Islamic rulers from 900 A.D. crafted Cordoba into a cultural capital in Spain, far ahead of the rest of Europe clawing its way out of the Dark Ages. Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully through the usual infighting, up-seating of the capital by Seville and Granada, and the eventual fall of southern Spain to the Christian rulers. What remains is a higgeldy-piggeldy old town with famous synagogues and Jewish quarters, and this unique behemoth – a towering cathedral tucked inside a sprawling mosque.

The Mihrab, natural acoustics for the muezzin’s prayers
Oh ye soaring, but well hidden cathedral! What a wonder you turned out to be!
The mosque is exquisite. Gothic and Islamic arches coexist peacefully behind the main altar. Thank you Castillian Christians for *not* tearing it down!

Alhambra (Granada) – The red castle

“Then, we’ll go to Granada every autumn to indulge a little bit…” Juan Ramón Jimenez

Indulge might just be the word I’m looking for. For what else do you call six straight hours wandering the Alhambra’s grounds, and then some more to climb through the streets of Albaycin to settle down at a viewpoint to see it in all its glory at dusk and after? While wandering through the forts, palaces and stunning gardens of the Alhambra was an absolute delight, my heart has been stolen by the view from the San Nicolas viewpoint at the sunset golden hour and after. This tops my list of most romantic moments, ever. 

Alcazaba Fort
The Ambassador’s Hall – where the last Moorish king Bobadil surrendered, and where Queen Isabella said “si senor” to Columbus’s pitch to travel the seas!
Yinan-al-‘Arif summer gardens. It’s spelt “Genaralife” but that kinds kills the sound, don’t you think?!
The lit up Alhambra from Albaycin’s San Nicolas viewpoint

El Tajo Gorge (Ronda)

We snuck in a day trip to this little “white town” between Seville and Granada, and were well rewarded with stunning gorge views, long walks to viewpoints and perfect blue skies.

El Tajo Gorge

Museums, Parks, Old Towns, Flamenco!

Museums

(no photos allowed inside both)

Prado blew us away with its fine European collection, with Bosch, Velasquez and El Greco highlights. My favourite though, was Francisco Goya’s work. From colourful stately portraits in his heyday, we walked straight into dark and scary ones of his depression phase. What a stunning study of how mental health affects art. 

The Reina Sofia confused us with its modern art, except Picasso’s civil war masterpiece Guernica. It is scarier and more hard-hitting in real life, an ode to “there’s really no point of war”.

Parks

The fun thing about both urban parks we went to was how architectural behemoths sprung up in the middle as though it was the natural park thing to do. Whoosh, there goes the breath that was just starting to return!

El Retiro Park, Madrid

Old Towns

While we stayed within old towns everywhere, the fact that we walked to and from the many stations reminded us each time that a greater metro was out there somewhere very close. For another day, Espana.

My favourite old town is Seville, hands down. Adorable hidden plazas, strong scent of jasmine as we walked through them and ducking through the narrow kissing lanes were an absolute delight.

Plaza de Dona Elvira, Seville

Finally, flamenco!

Improv is the essence of flamenco, and we found one such in the heart of Seville. Many, many performances have to be watched before one gets it, but for now we’ll take one magical night, thank you very much!

~~~

Because I left to the US right after this trip and filled my life with people for the next month, I didn’t find enough brain space to process what we saw immediately after. I’m doing that now, and as I collate the pictures and reread my diary (yes, I have many), I can only be extremely grateful for the magnificent era that’s been preserved in stone (literally) for all of us to see. 

An attempt at conscious travel

I gave up on trying to avoid disposables, for two reasons. B’s keto diet specifications, and insanely early morning trains which meant Mc.D coffee and croissants with two backpacks each which was enough excuse not to fish out the BYO.

But one thing I’d like to mention is the bull fighting which we took a stand against. If it was Tomatina season, we’d have boycotted that too.  Sure, these are an integral part of Spanish culture, but they lie on the other side of the line which we draw when we want to experience new things. There are aspects of culture which were relevant centuries ago but may have outlived their significance, and that is a line we all draw in our own way. We walked past every bull fighting arena we saw, even world famous ones, without a second glance.

Book read on the trip: Rick Steves “Spain”, and all the history that came with it.

Photos courtesy: B … thank you for the trip, the wonderful memories and the gorgeous photos.


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