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.

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