Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The last leg; Cordoba and Madrid

(click on photos to enlarge)
People recommend making Cordoba a day trip from Seville but we decided to stay two nights and get a feel for the place. We were glad we did as it is a sweet town to explore and has a number of nice restaurants and bars. It also has a huge number of souvenir shops and many tourists there during the day, especially Japanese tour groups for some reason.

The AVE train was very fast. I took a photo of the speed indicator at the front of the carriage and it was a consistent 245kph. I then got reprimanded for taking pictures of the train. It was a good thing he had not seen me taking photos of the toilet, luggage space and seats as well, all of which, I am happy to report, are spacious. The track is very smooth and limited to the high speed trains, but when you pass another one you feel the train rock before you see anything, then with a "pfaff" it is gone. A bit alarming the first time though.

Our hotel, directly opposite the Mezquita, and called the Mezquita Hotel, was perhaps a little old fashioned but the lady kindly gave us a room that was accessible by lift so we didn't have to carry suitcases up the stairs. We had three single beds and so a bit more space than in some of the other rooms I gather, and clean, with marble floors, air conditioning, a nice bathroom and wifi access available free in the pretty atrium off the front desk area. The place is absolutely filled with a family collection of art and artefacts and is built around a pebbled patio which is used for breakfast.

Hotel Mezquita

We had lunch at a nearby hotel dining room that is probably best forgotten. Such surly service, plates banged down on the table, bits of the order left out (which was probably a good thing), fatty fried food and soggy chips. Even the usually delicious Serrano ham was thick and dry and rather tasteless. We left quite a bit and were glad to get out.

Wandering rather aimlessly as we had not done much research on the town, we found ourselves in the pretty side streets of the Jewish Quarter and in the street of flowers, which has a nice view onto the minaret of the mosque (or onto the bell tower of the cathedral, depending on your affiliation).

Street of flowers

Later we discovered that several of the attractions are free on Wednesdays. Nice one! It was Wednesday. We visited the restored Baths of the Caliph, interesting but hard to really imagine what they were like, despite the signs posted in English, then on to the Alcazar, or Castle of the Christian Kings, also free today. This was a big surprise. The building had several restored rooms and some marvellous Roman mosaics on show, as well as an active archeological dig within the walls. But behind were some absolutely beautiful gardens, rich with cypresses, pools, fountains, roses and dense underplantings of perennial plants. It was a warm day so it was very pleasant to wander through the paths and by the pools, finding new vistas at each turn and hearing the water splashing or running in the fountains and pools.

Fountain and hedges

Pool reflecting part of the castle and walls

Fountains, pool and trees

With a recommendation for dinner at Casa de Pepe from the front desk, we went out in search of sustenance, bearing in mind that 9pm is early for the Spanish to dine. So we first found a nice bar in the Jewish quarter, edged by perfectly trimmed orange trees, and watched the passing parade, including a group of older citizens who come out and sit and chat before returning to their apartments for dinner. It does add to the feeling of community when people live in apartments but can use the local squares for a passegiata, as in Italy. Again, apartment living seems to be preferred. Even the small towns we passed in the train were made of apartments or terraced town houses.

The restaurant was busy, mainly with tourists, but happy and the food was interesting. The BEST olives ever, green and sweet/salt. I have rather become addicted to salmorejo, a sort of tomato and bread soup, thicker than gazpacho and a great light lunch dish or even a dip. So I had some of that and we shared baby broad beans with ham, and pork slices with truffled gravy.

It poured rain overnight but cleared for the morning. The mosque/cathedral opens for free at 8.30 to 9.30, then there is mass then afterwards paid entry. By 10am the large groups were massing already in the Patio of the Orange Trees and we had no hope of getting tourist free photos. The interior is also quite dark so photos are a problem anyway.

Patio of the orange trees and the bell tower, which was the minaret

There are differing stories about this building, with Catholics feeling aggrieved that an early church was taken over to build the mosque and the Muslims saying that the church was purchased. Maybe it was a forced sale. Whatever, the forest of red and white striped arches that used to stretch in unbroken lines is now interrupted by a large Catholic cathedral started after the Christians came back into power.

Mosque arches

Red and white bands

Arabic arches

Not only is the dome and altar in the centre, but many areas around the structure have been converted into side altars. Really the only area left untouched is the area around the mihrab, (which is supposed to point the direction of Mecca but is inaccurate here).

Mihrab Arch pointing the direction of Mecca

Cupola over the door to the mihrab

I don't even find it an inspiring cathedral though there is some lovely work in it. The choir stalls are beautiful and a labour of love from one artist, and the oval cupola is quite striking and I would have really liked it in another setting.

Oval cupola in the cathedral

Lion sculpture beneath one pulpit

Mahogany choir stalls

There are arguments that the mosque would have disappeared had it not been taken over, and that may be true, as it is probably true for the Pantheon in Rome, which I love. But really, I felt like something wonderful and rare had been despoiled. I could have returned for free the following morning but I no longer had an interest. But you would need to make your own decisions about the place.

Mosque walls and minaret by night

Later we wandered down to the Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River, the same one as in Seville. Not much water here, but many birds. The area that was filled with mills driven by the water is now a wildlife sanctuary. The Museum of Three Cultures in a tower at the end of the bridge was interesting, though the main point of view was definitely Muslim and how the Muslim people lived in different eras. The view from the tower of the old town and the newer areas was excellent.

View from the tower Roman bridge, Mezquita top right

A very nice lunch in a restaurant set around a patio was followed by a visit to the two main galleries in the town, the Museo des Bellas Artes first, which was interesting but not full of treasures that spark memories. Next door was the studio and museum of Julio Romero de Torres who painted prolifically in the early part of the 20th century. He is probably most famous for his paintings of young Spanish women, some of the nude paintings scandalising the people of the time. They are an interesting genre and reproductions are seen everywhere in Cordoba and in Spain generally.

Naranjas y limones

We visited a recommended restaurant for dinner. On walking in the door we were confronted by a display of beautiful cuts of meat and another of fish. Suddenly the imperative was a rare steak each, not something we had eaten much during the holiday. The sommelier chose a reasonably priced Spanish wine for us, switching effortlessly between Spanish and English, then German and Italian and probably French too as he moved around the tables. We enjoyed the steak, thick, juicy and rare as ordered, and completed the meal with a dessert and a glass each of Pedro Ximenes dessert wine, rich and luscious. I was kept awake by a sugar "high" that night.

Off to Madrid. For some reason we were placed in "Preferente class" so had a little more room, though I don't think I would be paying extra for the privilege, as economy is really very good indeed on these AVE trains. Speeds up to 280kph this time. At times there was quite an uphill grade through mountains and some tunnels to an upland plain. Farming and mining here and I suspect cattle country as the bottom of the tree foliage was all at one height as we see it in Australia when the cattle shelter there. We saw stands of pines, gums and some other tree planted in rather irregular rows which just may have been cork oak trees, but I am not sure.

We came into Allocha station in Madrid, the older part of which has been turned into a more restful seating and eating area, with palm trees and a pond absolutely full of turtles.

Turtle pool

Again, nice ironwork and decoration in the old structures that you would not find today. Our hotel was right in the city, though difficult to access because of road works. It was opposite a department store, El Corte Inglese so we purchased fruit and yoghurt and some soft drink to keep in our fridge. The hotel, Carlos V, has been refurbished and provided a freshly decorated room, a roomy bathroom and a nice little balcony outside too, with a table and chairs.

The city architecture is enhanced with wide streets and a series of fountains, well decorated with flowers. A realignment of some city streets led to handsome buildings in the modernist style being erected, of which this Metropolitan building is probably the best.

Metropolitan Building

Neptune Fountain

Nowadays there are pedestrianised streets and quite a police presence as the crowds move through, especially at night. It certainly seems to help to keep the peace. Lots of cafes and beer halls too. We liked this one at the end of our street with the beer held on high.

Bar and beer

We were directed to a street beyond the Plaza Mayor for cafes and restaurants, but we really were too early for dinner by Spanish standards. We ended up in a brightly lit cafe/bar that had small portions to share and had a nice selection of food prepared in different ways. Boy, when they say garlic they really mean it; the garlic potato salad was enough to deter vampires.

Plaza Mayor at night

Coming home we passed the St Michael Market which was open and humming. Each food stand was offering something for dinner, maybe cava (Spanish sparkling wine) or other wines, while another had seafood prepared on a hotplate and yet another fresh oysters, or Serrano ham or other small bites. The crowd was having a ball though I suspect speaking Spanish and having sharp elbows to get through the crowd might have been pre-requisites. There were also fresh fish, meat, chicken and vegetables to buy. This at about 10pm.

Seafood bar at St Michael's Market

Plaza Mayor itself was fascinating. Built in the time of Hapsburg rule it does not look Spanish but middle European, with steeples and apartments and arched colonnades and gates into the square. Very, very crowded, very touristy at any time of day, full of restaurants, bars, buskers, "living statues", even a fat Spiderman who did not climb the walls but suggested you have a photo taken with him. We declined!

A visit to the Plaza Mayor in daylight allowed for some photos and a light and overpriced lunch. The square itself, and the buildings, are well proportioned. One building is beautifully painted with sirens and mermaids.

Siren on building

Buildings, Plaza Mayor
(complete with Spiderman)

We spent some time analysing the dress of the Spanish women. Older women dress in pants suits or suits in linen and look quite elegant. Their escorts are quite dapper, perhaps a linen coat, a smart tie or scarf. The young women are in skin tight jeans and a pretty top. Those wearing short shorts in the city are NOT Spanish. We thought we spied one on the train, long, long brown legs, long, long hair, short denim shorts, she looked very much at home. Then she took a phone call in pure American. Similarly, groups of young women in shorts, at least in the city, all seemed to have American accents.

Our Saturday in Madrid was devoted to the Prado and the Museum of Thyssen Bornemisza. Prado first. This place would be second only to the Uffizi of the places I have seen. Perhaps the Louvre has more, but it does not seem as accessible. The most amazing history of art unfolded before us, so much to choose from that we had to prioritise what we would see, even though we kept being sidetracked.

El Grego, Velasquez, Bosch with his weird feast for psychologists (apparetly a highly gifted intellect and a depth of symbology in his art, including "The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych) Durer, Raphael, Murillo (who I find a bit saccharine). A glorious two hours feasting on treasures such as Goya's Naked and Clothed Maja and of course his savage "Second of May 1808" and 'Third of May 1808" paintings of the uprising of the citizens against elite French troops and the subsequent shooting of the rioters the next day. I guess everyone knows the central figure of the man in yellow and white, arms raised like on a crucifix, about to be shot by a firing squad and lit by eerie lamplight. Incredibly powerful and very moving, it is referenced by Picasso in his war painting "Guernica".

As we left we came on this fellow making souvenir posters. Working very quickly he would print with type blocks any given name into the bullfighting or Flamenco dancing posters. He had it down to a fine art and accuracy. What a great idea! Naturally we had to get one each for Tim and Matt. They were quite chuffed.

Printing Matt's name on the poster

Then we girded our loins yet again and dived into the nearby Museum of Thyssen Bornemisza, a lovely building set in a calm garden. Now for about the fourth time in the trip we visited a museum made of the private collection of a very wealthy individual. A whole history of European art, from early Italian to Canaletto, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Mondrian and Lucien Freud (the one called "Last Portrait" was deeply personal and moving). Think of the wealth involved to be able to do this. And added to his collection is that of wife Carmen, a collector herself. Maybe a few too many Dutch landscapes and interiors for my tastes but an overwhelming history, and Holbein's portrait of Henry the Eighth (smaller than expected) sort of makes up for other Dutch shortcomings. We staggered into the cafe for a small reviver before making our way home.

In contrast to the flow of rooms in the two museums yesterday, Reina Sofia, the modern art museum, was formed of discrete groups of rooms and lots of backtracking was required to get out once you were inside an exhibit. However, it is free on Sundays so one shouldn't complain too much. We were rather amiused by the glass elevators to take you to the top floor, accessed by walking up two sets of stairs. Spain has put many things in place for people with disabilities, but at first glance, this one didn't seem very good. There is probably a back way.

Lifts outside Reina Sofia

There were some old friends, Miro, Picasso, Dali, and the delightful Man Ray metronome,

Man Ray metronome

but we were most taken by collections of older black and white photography which were so immediate to the moment they were taken, giving a real insight to the lives of people. As we moved towards Guernica, my main reason for going to the museum, the photos often concerned war and were joined by pen drawings about war from Goya, which I did not expect. Heightened sensitivities to the sufferings of war led us to quite an emotional reaction.

Guernica brought me to tears. It is such a primal scream of pain about the futility of war, the pain and grief and desolation.

Guernica panoramic
(distorted by the photographic process)

Guernica (detail)

I loved the mother who patiently explained the images to her little girl, who then came back with her own feelings, the sombre sense in the room, the attention to the overall image and to the details. This is Picasso, who people claim not to understand!

Nothing after that. We had our fill. Enough!

Madrid is a treasure trove of art, but we felt less in tune with it as a city than say, Sevilla or Valencia. Of course we saw only a tiny part and there must be more to explore. I have a feeling that Spain may call us back.

After Madrid, back to Rome for one night and then back to Australia via Dubai (upgraded to first for the Rome/Dubai leg, which was nice). So, after twelve weeks away, very good to be home, to hug the cat, unpack all the clothes and not have to be somewhere else in a few days. But what a trip! In particular what amazing treasures we saw to carry in our memories and how very privileged we feel to be able to travel in this way.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sevilla enchants us

(click on photos to enlarge)
We were recommended to take a bus rather than train to Sevilla as they were more frequent. That was fine but there were queues at the bus station for tickets, so if you do that, allow plenty of time.

The agriculture along the bus route was very different to previous trips, through mile after mile of olive groves, thousands of hectares of olive groves. Now, to harvest olives you spread nets under the trees and shake it madly, either with sticks or, these days, with a machine that grabs the trunk and shakes it like a demented thing. I cannot comprehend the labour required to harvest the olive orchards I saw. Each tree would take a minimum of, say, three minutes, but there were millions of them, as far as the eye can see. (I am reliably informed 300 million in Andalucia) I know Spain is the biggest producer of olives, but how do they do it?


I wondered at the older trees that had become three or four trunks instead of one. How did that happen? Splitting and recovery perhaps. We also saw just one tract of olives grown cordon style (one trunk, branches flat at 180 degrees along wires, ideal for machine harvest). All so interesting and so different. Perhaps another crop may have been asparagus, strips of ferny, frondy leaves on the top of long hills of earth. There were certainly mountains and plains, quite large tracts of agricultural land freshly ploughed and looking like the Crete Senese in Italy. There was no way this trip was boring.

Ploughed earth looking like the Crete Senese

Solar arrays

Our hotel in Sevilla was absolutely charming, the Casa Sacristia Santa Anna, right on a large paved "village green" called the Alemeda de Hercules where locals strolled and rode bikes and an "indoor climbing" competition was taking place outdoors (wow! how do they DO that? They climb like spiders, upside down at times).

Courtyard of the hotel

The Alemeda was surrounded by many cafes and bars, though again we quickly established our favourite, Bibo, which had a menu we could understand and a waitress who was prepared to be patient with us and guided us in choosing the right amount of food and a good Spanish wine to go with it.

Nick looking contented at Bibo

This area was right on the edge of the old town and it was quite an easy walk to the marvellous shopping streets and the beautiful architecture of the town. They delight in enclosed verandahs with french windows where they can look out at the passing parade, and the tiling and decoration of Andalucia is evident everywhere.

Enclosed verandahs

Tiled and decorated buildings

Virgin and child picture in tiles

The Alcazar is a collection of palaces from different times, so the architectural influences are Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. This was a beautiful experience. The palace of King Peter, who was a Christian king, was built in a Moorish style and his love of that architecture and relationship with the people is evident in the building. The Andalucian love of tiled surfaces was very evident, as were formal gardens and fountains, though it would have been nice if all the fountains were turned on, nothing sadder than a dry fountain unless it be a parched garden.

The photos of the Alcazar can perhaps convey the beauty better than words.

Inscription at entry to King Peter's Castle

Arms of Leon and Castille
(The lion and the castle)

Decorative work

Fretwork archway

Door and tiling

Window and tiling


Amazing cupola made of wood

Fountain and pool

Fountain in the Dance Garden

In the Gothic palace the tiling was absolutely beautiful, usually yellow and blue and very intricate.

Beautiful Andalucian tiles

It led to a courtyard that roofed over an area underneath that became the Maria Padilla baths.We were very taken with this story of the underground pool, built for King Peter's mistress apparently, and reached down a dim passage from a pretty garden. You could imagine the assignations.

The pool of the Mistress

Afterwards we wandered in the Santa Cruz area, which is the main tourist area with winding streets and prettty houses and prices in restaurants much more expensive than where we are staying. We settled on a place called San Marco, one of three restaurants of that name, housed in an old Muslim bath house with alcoves and star shaped holes in the curved brick roof. It was presented most attractively, with starched tablecloths and covers on the chairs. The prices were actually less than the street bars outside. It was the "people" behaviour that entertained us though. Tourists would walk in, maybe after reading the menu, take one look at the tablecloths and chairs and leave. It happened again and again. The formality apparently said "Not for us". The Spanish seemed to come in with no such qualms.

San Marco restaurant

We enjoyed a nice meal of a shared plate of pate (hooray for the Spanish custom of sharing dishes, this one was BIG) and we each had a different duck dish. With wine and water the bill came to E50.00, so not too bad. We had a snack for dinner that night.

The visit to the cathedral entailed quite a wait until it reopened at 2.30pm (got to have that siesta) and then a long queue, which moved quickly however, so that we did not have too long in the sun. The bell tower of the Giralda loomed over us, remnant of a mosque to which they added bits in true Catholic "takeover" style. The two local Catholic girl martyrs are always shown holding it, though I haven't quite figured out the connection.

La Giralda

I loved the "one-upmanship" that the cathedral has a volume bigger than St Peter's in Rome, though it would surprise me if it really did. It does have a myriad of side chapels and rooms that are interesting and a main altar that is totally gilded, needs a good dust and is very hard to analyse because it is so intricate.

Golden altar

There were very beautiful carved choir stalls in a central screened choir, something not often seen now, and a very pretty rose window.

Rose window

Plus of course the "tomb" of Christoforo Colombo which does not seem to be hampered by the fact that it does not actually contain his body, or so I am told. (But a friend in Spain tells me the DNA matches that of his son, so after all, it probably is Colombus)

Tomb of Christopher Colombus

The ticket for the cathedral also entitles you to visit San Salvador which again has many gilded altars and an interesting history in terms of what was once Muslim and is now Catholic. This delightful clothed statue was inside, looking very Spanish, just as our statues of the virgin look so Anglo-Saxon.

"Spanish" virgin statue

The next day we visited the Museo Palacio de Lebrija, which was amazing. (What is it with all these people who take a liking for something and just buy it for their collection?) In this case the lady of the house in the early 1900s had found beautiful Roman mosaics and other treasures at nearby Italica and collected them into her house. She probably saved them from obliteration, for what we now have is a museum that was her house, floored with complete, beautiful, ancient, Roman mosaic floors and filled with archeological finds. Each room is a new museum piece. I kept saying "I'm actually walking on ancient Roman mosaics, I can't believe it." Such treasures!

Hallway at edge of the courtyard

Mosaic floor, one of many

The Pan floor

The octagonal room

It is a gem, really quite exquisite, the rest of the house also having beautiful tiles around the typical Andalucian courtyard.

Tiled walls adjoining the fountain courtyard

Later, we found one of the sister restaurants of San Marco and decided to have a meal there. I think it was actually a clone of Fawlty Towers though. First, attractive striped walls and clothed chairs made it more difficult to discern that the pillars of ruched fabric actually disguised long poles of scaffolding that had been there some time, painted to match at ceiling level. Just a little worrying re the safety of the ceiling.

Our young waiter may have been on his first day on the job, or perhaps he was a cousin of Manuel, but he had NO idea, like NO idea about being a waiter, and the supervuisor was failing to supervise and teach. So it went like this.

The young waiter took our order, writing it down. We also ordered white wine and he duly bought it, opened it and poured more than half a glass for tasting. He then left the bottle on the table, sans cooling mechanism. We had also ordered San Pelligrino mineral water as the sister restaurant had it yesterday. After a long wait he came back and asked me again. I wrote it down for him. He came back with two bottles of something different, one with gas, one without. We indicated the one with gas and he had to be stopped from pouring it into the wine. We pantomimed additional glasses which he finally provided. Later the maitre d' saw we had no ice bucket and brought one, tut-tutting, but that was an opportunity for the young man to learn that was sadly missed.

The waiter returned and again asked what we had ordered. Then he brought someone else's food. Eventually he served what I had ordered, but Nick's had obviously been kept warm while mine was recooked. We finished the meal with a profiterole that was all sog; even the custard was curdled. There weren't many choices on the "menu del dia" and I did point as well as say it, knowing how non-existent my own Spanish is. So E15 for the menu del dia but, apart from the entertainment value, not recommended. And maybe that roof...

On the other hand, a lunch at Robles Laredo on the square of San Francesco was a lovely experience. On a hot day they employ the method of fans blowing a mist. The heat that is needed to evaporate the water comes from the surrounding air, cooling it. But it looks quite amazing. We saw it in a few places in Spain, and not working very efficiently, in the Boston underground. This restaurant has a really nice toilet too, with the walls tiled in coloured glass fingers and clean and well equipped.

Anyway, seduced partly by the array of tempting cakes and desserts, we stepped inside and ordered a few small things from the printed menu. The waiter, who may have been the manager, was so solicitous of us and so enthusiastic about his food that we lingered, ordering a few tapas of the day by looking and pointing at the bar and then going the whole hog and ordering a yummy, gooey cake each. We asked about a sweet wine to go with, and again he was so enthusiastic, a Pedro Ximenes and an orange flavoured wine, one glass of each, and which did we like best and weren't they wonderful. We left, energised and refreshed and feeling somehow very welcomed. (I was a bit bemused by the Japanese tourists at the next table whose idea of sweet cake heaven was an iced donut, which was duly photographed before being consumed. Still, to each their own)

We had a shopping day too, and the two parallel main shopping streets, Calle Sierpes and Calle de Velazquez are a delight, especially if you are after shoes. I got some very neat patchwork leather ones. There are also a series of shops with painted fans, shawls and mantillas in the Spanish style, often very fine work but some also at affordable prices. I had fun choosing a fan. The streets often have shops or houses with fine tiling work including this wonderful advertisement for Studebaker.

Advertisement in tiles

The Museo des Bellas Artes was well worth visiting with a number of pieces to treasure. Housed in an old convent, the chapel room in particular was quite lovely with a number of paintings of "The Immaculate Conception" or Mary painted in a certain way, standing on a crescent moon, and often represented as quite young. There was quite a fashion for this at one stage and Murillo was the most outstanding artist in the genre, though the works look a little kitsch these days.

Immaculate Conception by Murillo

The museum was beautifully organised into rooms that housed different eras and artists from different countries and again there was a lovely central courtyard and the pretty Spanish tiling which makes places feel so cool.

Cloister courtyard

Chapel dome in the museo

In the evening we walked through the San Lorenzo residential quarter with children playing in the streets and many people moving in and out of the churches. Men seemed well represented in the devout. Even the poorer churches have a gilded altar and at least one statue of the virgin clothed in elaborate robes and crowned.

Elaborate clothed virgin statue
Church of S Lorenzo

It was good to see these areas off the tourist track, but rather sad to see areas by the river with promenades falling apart and plazas in front of once lovely market places with marble slabs lifting and breaking. These look like they were designed to encourage people to congregate and enjoy the areas, but now they feel deserted and even a bit sinister.

After an indifferent meal in town we stopped at our favourite cafe, Bobo, and ended up talking to a charming young woman who asked about our experiences and especially our food experiences. We expressed much liking for Bobo and she exclaimed with delight; she was the owner.

In all, we loved Sevilla and feel that it would still have a lot to offer for a stay of longer than a few days and we especially liked our accommodation and the village feel around it.
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