In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Granada and Madrid

Alcazaba/Citadel of Alhambra
We left Sanlucar on December 5 by bus to Jerez where we caught the train to Granada, passing through lots of hills with olive trees as far as the eye could see.  Our hotel was in an old section below the Alhambra.  About one quarter of the population of Granada are university students, so we were finally in a Spanish town with vegetarian restaurants, or veg dishes in Indian or regular restaurants.
Courtyard of King Carlos' Palace
The Alhambra is on the prow of a steep hill overlooking the city, and it was easy to walk around town below it, or to walk up the hill, though we also took buses and cabs.  There is also a large modern city that stretches out from the hills, which was decorated for Christmas and had lots of shoppers and bustle.  It is in a large valley with dramatic tall snow-covered mountains to the west.
Ceiling design

With only three days, our focus was on the Alhambra, where we spent most of two days.  It is a pretty walk up through a park to get there, but there were also frequent buses and cheap taxis, so we only walked up and down once.  It is a very large walled area which might have had a population of 20,000 at one time.  The crest of the hill is where the Alcazaba, or fortress is, which is probably the oldest section.  Then there is a large courtyard/garden area, and then a massive square palace built by King Carlos V, a Hapsburg King, Holy Roman Emperor, and grandson of Queen Isabella. It has a large round central courtyard and now houses the Alhambra Museum and the Fine Arts Museum.  Somewhat past and below that palace is the complex of Moorish palaces which are the famous part of the Alhambra.  They are truly marvelous.  The outside is just square and blockish, but the inside is wonderfully ornate.  Particularly amazing are the ceiling domes which in many areas are made up of stalactite-type hanging inverted pyramids. I suspect that they used to be brightly painted. Then there are the wonderful arches, windows, courtyards and gardens.  The palace entry is by timed ticket, and there is always quite a crowd around, so one cannot wander at leisure or return, which is too bad.  However, the rest of the grounds are not as restricted.  We did come back over two days in order to see it all.
Lion fountain
All the second day we concentrated on the Generalife (Jennat al Arif or Garden of the Architect) Palace, which is a summer pavilion even higher up on the hill, very open and with even more gardens.  Both museums within the grounds were also interesting and pleasant to visit.  Washington Irving is remembered at the Alhambra because he wrote a popular book in 1832 called Tales of the Alhambra, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  He actually stayed within the palace for over a year.
Alhambra from Generalife
Generalife Palace from Alhambra

Inner gardens of Generalife
Washington Irving
Courtyard where Irving stayed
 In addition, we also took a hop-on-hop-off bus tour around Granada, which let us see much more of the city then we would have otherwise.  Our only stop, besides the Alhambra, was the house that the author Garcia Lorca grew up in, which used to be a farm on the outskirts of town and is now in the city, with much of the farm converted to a city park.  Typically the house was closed because it was a holiday, Assumption Day. 

We also went to an Arabian bathhouse to warm up.  The pools were not as hot as we are used to, but we got very nice half hour massages.  It is the only time I have been in a space with a lot of Spaniards where it was actually quiet.
Christmas lights
We visited the Cathedral –very large- and the attached royal chapel with the tomb of their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, which has a very striking altar.  They chose to be buried in Granada because they felt the Reconquista was their greatest achievement.  We also had fun walking around the Albaicin along the river Darro, which is one of the old quarters and has lots of bars and restaurants and live music.  We did actually hear some flamenco guitar and singing in one restaurant near the Cathedral.  We also listened to an English folk singer outside a cafe one afternoon.  That was a Saturday, and there were lots of buskers out, and it was sunny and mild and a perfect leisurely afternoon.
Virgin looking like Ishtar

Garcia Lorca house
Virgin of Granada
Cervantes lived near our hotel
Sunday morning we left early by train to Madrid.  We arrived early enough that we were able to settle into our Pension on Calle Cervantes.
Detail from Garden of Earthy Delights
We could walk a few blocks to spend the afternoon in the Prado, admiring among other works the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, the whole range of paintings by Goya from his royal portraits through to his late dark paintings, many paintings by Velazquez, not enough by El Greco, lots of Rubens and Titian, a special exhibit of the young Van Dyke of works painted from age 16, when he was still an apprentice to Rubens, to age 22 when he left Antwerp for Italy. 
Palacio de Cibeles
The Prado is a wonderful art museum, and we returned for another half day.  We also took another hop-on-hop-off bus tour to see all the monuments.  We did the whole circuit and only when we got off did we really realize how cold we had gotten!  We had two and a half days in Madrid, so we were also able to go to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a smaller art gallery more or less across from the Prado.  It had a special exhibit on Gauguin and the voyage to the Exotic, so it also had works by other painters. 
Plaza Puerta del Sol
The rest of the museum is almost a survey of art through 40 small rooms of works from the Renaissance through the modern era.  In the Palacio de Cibeles nearby there was a special exhibit, rarely seen, from the collections of the Dukes and Duchesses of Alba which was really interesting.  It included a Fra Angelico of the Virgin of Granada (which also means pomegranate), a Goya portrait of the first Duchess of Alba (a special friend of his, assumed to also be the model for his Naked Maja in the Prado), handwritten letters by Christopher Columbus, a Chagall, plus some royal clothing and furniture.  A motley collection!  At some point the dukedom passed to an illegitimate son of King James II of the UK, James Fitz-James, first Duke of Berwick.  Wikipedia tells me that the current Duchess has more recognized titles than any other aristocrat currently living.
Plaza Mayor Christmas Market

Madrid was also great for the variety of vegetarian restaurants.  We were able to walk to 3 from our hotel, plus a veg friendly Mexican restaurant.  We had fun walking around and down to the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, which was set up with a nice Christmas market.  So far Madrid is my second favorite European capital after Vienna.

On 12/12/12 we flew back home on Aer Lingus from Madrid to Dublin to Boston to Reagan National in DC.  A long day but uneventful.  We have been able to settle back into being home easily.  We hope to start traveling again in late January, probably around the South or the Caribbean.  See you then.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

theme song

Hotel Switzerland (Suecia) Granada

I almost wrote this entry a month ago.  It appears that this trip has a theme song – not one we chose, but one that keeps coming up.  And the song is …
Hotel California!

We first heard this back in Chicago while we were walking around the city when we had a 4 hour break before picking up the Amtrak train to Oregon.  There was a live band playing in an office building courtyard while the management was handing out free lunches to their tenants.  We particularly noticed the song during their set because there was a group of young women dancing and singing along and taking photos of themselves.  Next we heard it in a hippy-ish vegetarian restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland.  They also played songs like Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and Dylan’s Let’s Go Get Stoned.  In North Berwick, Scotland, we heard it at the pub we frequented called The Ship Inn, but even then it didn’t seem too odd.

We started to really notice the song when we left Great Britain, where at least you would expect to hear English language music.  It turns out that the vast majority of piped-in music in Europe seems to be American.  In Vienna, we heard it in a Chinese restaurant that was near our apartment and very veg friendly.  We heard it on a bus going into Nimes in southern France, and in a taxi in Avila, Spain.  That was when I thought about writing this post, but I procrastinated, and the moment passed. 

There was a long gap, but finally today in Granada (a Saturday) as we were walking in the “gypsy” quarter and listening to lots of different buskers on street corners, one of them sang Hotel California.  I gave him a Euro and told him we had heard it from Chicago and through Europe.  I think he was a little disappointed that it was such a common cover.  BTW, he sounded Spanish, although he could speak and understand my English.

In a few days, we hope to see the Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” at the Prado in Madrid.  Then we return home and are done with hotels for a while.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sanlucar part 2

25,000 year old Venus

One of the more out of the way spots we discovered in Sanlύcar was the Casa Mitologico in an old church converted into La Victoria Cultural Center.  It is actually on a square fairly close to the downtown area but not prominently marked.  We were the only visitors the day we went, and they had to turn on the lights and the projectors for us, but it was a really interesting exhibit.  In the 3 rooms, there was one devoted to the myth of the Tartessians, whom stories recount as having lived beyond the Pillars of Hercules.  It is still not clear whether there ever was a real Tartessian civilization.  There is some archeological record, but no actual cities have been found.  It is certainly clear that the Phoenicians were trading out to this distant area.


The second room was devoted to myths of the mother goddess, going back to 20,000 year old figures and pictograms in Spain, through Ishtar, Isis, Hera and Juno, and even, very carefully, linking it to the Virgin Mary.  There are sculptures of Isis with a child that look remarkably like sculptures of Mary and Jesus.  The third room was about Hercules because of the Pillars of Hercules, and one of his labors had him stealing cattle from the King of Tartessos.

As I said before, the main industry that we could see in Sanlύcar is sherry.  Vast stretches of white buildings dominate the upper town where they catch the sea breeze.  One morning we took a tour of the Barbadillo sherry bodega.  Barbadillo is the biggest distillery in town, and the process of turning wine into sherry was very interesting, especially as we have a little experience with California wineries.  They start with a white grape, Palomino, which is often grown in the area, but can be grown as far away as La Mancha.  They do bottle a white wine, but at least half the harvest goes towards sherry.  Some of the wine is distilled to a brandy that is remixed with the original to bring it up to 15% alcohol content and started with a new fermentation process with a different yeast in oak barrels.  However, the main secret, at least with Barbadillo sherry, is that the new wine is constantly mixed with older wine.  A sherry when it is bottled may be six or more years old.
Sherry tour

One third of the barrel is drawn off to be bottled, and the barrel is refilled from a barrel one stage younger, which is turn is refilled from a younger barrel.  Each barrel has its community of yeast which is used to the alcohol content therein, and the final sherry approaches 18%.  This process, and the local environment of cooling sea breezes, is what makes this wine a Manzanilla rather than a Jerez sherry.  Manzanilla apparently translates as chamomile.  There is both some of the chamomile flavor and color to the drink.  One of the most interesting rooms our tour guide took us to (we were again the only tourists) was what was called the Cathedral – a huge tall room with rows of stacked barrels, windows opening to the sea breeze and a sand floor to soak during the summer to keep the process cool.  We also got to taste some of the products.  Besides the wine and the manzanilla, there is also amontillado, which is aged even further, and sweet sherries, which are mixed with sweet grape wine.

Muddy waters
Sanlύcar’s other claim to fame is as the gateway to the Donaña National Park, which encompasses the marshes of the estuary of the Guadalquivir River.  I was struck with how many rivers in Spain start with Guadal, so I looked it up in Wikipedia.  The root word is from the Arabic Wadi al …, in this case a word that means big, so Guadalquivir is the Big River.  The first time we walked down to the river, I was wondering where the channel was, because all I could see was sand.  It wasn’t until we got quite close that I realized that I was looking at water and not sand.  It is the brownest river I have ever seen.  I guess this is because it runs through a lot of dry, sandy countryside.  It is because the river carries so much silt that the marshes exist that have been made into the Donaña National Park.  Thousands of years ago, the river emptied into a big delta estuary, but eventually it created a sand bar (or ocean currents created it) and the marsh formed behind the sand bar.  The interaction between the river, ocean, and sand is constantly changing. 

Donana boat cruise
Our tour of Donaña started with a short boat trip across the river, and then we got into small 4-wheel drive buses which took us down the river shore and around to the Atlantic.  There were enough people on this tour to fill up 3 buses of about 30 each.  The talk was all in Spanish, so we missed a lot.  Anyway, it was very interesting when we got out to the bar at the current river mouth, because the difference between the sandy river water and the blue ocean water was quite obvious.  And of course, the Atlantic was much rougher.  There were lots of seabirds.  Then the buses went inland to one of the pine forests. 

Dunes versus forest
The sand dunes were dramatically encroaching on the forest.  Then we drove back around and into a more inland area of pine trees, which they still allow to be harvested for pine nuts.  We saw some deer and wild pigs.  Then we drove out to an overlook of the marshes, but they are too wet to go into.  Finally, we went to an area that had had ranches and still has some of the interesting rush-work houses that people lived in.  There we boarded a boat to go down river back to Sanlύcar, passing by a mountain of salt processed from the delta.  It was a very interesting morning.

Beach and Promenade

On a different day we rented bicycles and rode up and down the beach road for an hour and a half.  Going towards the river mouth (mostly west but also south) we got further than we had walking, down to an area where there are small fishing boats, and then the road went over a hill and into a new town which looked like it had experienced a big boom in sea side housing starts, but is pretty empty looking now.  We could still overlook the river for a while at view points, but eventually turned around when it seemed like we were staying more inland.  Traffic was thankfully light on the roads, and eventually we got back to the riverside promenade. 

Sanlucar street

Speaking of the economic crisis, which is not very apparent to our tourist eyes, we feel like we are seeing a lot of babies around town.  Maybe it is no more than usual, but we have been wondering if, with 50% unemployment among young people, they are viewing this as a good opportunity to have a child.

There have not been a lot of cultural activities to go to.  I think we have missed most of the flamenco.  There are 2 places and they have always been closed when we have gone by.  They may be open way past our bed time.  The very first weekend we were here, there was a woman playing the guitar and singing in one place, but when we went back later, it was closed.  So when we saw a poster for a concert commemorating the Constitution of 1812, we figured we should go.  This Constitution was created in Cadiz during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain.  It was very liberal and democratic and never actually implemented by any government, but they are still proud of it in Andalucía. 

Church of Nuestra Senora de la O

The concert was performed by a totally wind and percussion orchestra, who looked like a mix of youth and mature players.  First there was a lecture on the constitution by a professor from the University of Cadiz, then the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Hearing it played entirely by wind instruments along with percussion was a very unique experience!  The orchestra was actually quite good for amateurs, and there were very few false notes.  Then there was another lecture by another professor about the battle of Matagorda during the defense of Cadiz, and the heroism of a Scottish nurse named Agnes Reston.  The British were helping Spain free itself from French tyranny.  This was followed by two short pieces for the orchestra by Spanish composers.  Then there was a talk about the music by the president of the youth orchestra followed by the Polka of Matagorda by an English composer.  There was a reasonably good sized audience to listen to all this in the town auditorium, which used to be a chapel owned by the local nobility. 

Virgin del Rocio
Finally, we have a few pictures from the churches around town.  Many of them have striking ceramic tile pictures on their outer walls of the Virgin or Christ or other Saints.  Other buildings have them too, mostly religious, but sometimes commemorating historical figures.  Even some of the businesses and summer villas have a little plaque to Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza.  We have been able to go into some of the local churches, particularly the three that are on our daily walk, but they are open for religious reasons, not for tourism.  Like most of the Spanish churches we have seen, there are almost no windows, but the altars and side altars are very ornate and have particularly life like statues.

Now we are off to Granada for a few days and then Madrid and then home!

Magellan and Elcano, who sailed from Sanlucar