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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sanlucar de Barrameda Part 1

Sanlucar sunset
Plaza Cabildo

On Friday November 16, we arrived in Sanlύcar de Barrameda.  I forgot to mention in the previous post that as soon as the train went over some hills and into the valley of Seville, we started going through orange groves.  The main trees planted along the streets of Sanlύcar are oranges, all beginning to look ripe.  I have picked one so far, but I am letting it ripen a little more.  There are also palm trees and Norfolk Island pines.  Oddly, we have not found any orange marmalade in the stores.  The hotel offers apricot jam, and that is the main thing found in the stores.  I guess all the marmalade is for the overseas markets. 

Hotel los Helechos

We came to this town because of a book we read last year called Spanish Recognitions, by Mary Lee Settle.  It is a very quirky tale of her travels through Spain at age 82, and her thoughts on Spanish history and character.  She ended her travels in Sanlucar, and made it sound very appealing.  I just googled her, and she died in 2005 at the age of 86.

View of river mouth and sea

We have been in Medieval Spain and in Roman Spain; now we are in modern Spain.  This town is about the same size as Rockville, and only a couple of degrees further south, but its climate is moderated by its coastal location on the mouth of the Guadalquivir River.  There are, in fact, old buildings here –churches, a castle and a palacio up on the hill above the main town.  500 years ago the river ran quite close to the hill, but what used to be the Marine drive is now a half mile inland.  We enjoy walking down to the river and along the beach.  During the high season of July and August, the town must be filled with tourists, but right now it is quiet and mostly the natives.  The main industry here is sherry.  There are dozens of large complexes devoted to creating Manzanilla, which is what you order in the restaurants – una copita de Manzanilla – and not sherry.  The sea breeze is supposed to give the wine its local flavor. 

Rooftops and steeples

We stayed through the weekend at a pleasant hotel with a lovely central courtyard, and then on Wednesday we moved into an apartment where we will stay for 2 weeks.  It still amazes me that traveling and staying in apartments has worked out so well on this trip.  The ability to cook for ourselves has certainly made the trip more affordable, and an apartment is more pleasant than a hotel for a longer stay.  It is also true that Spain, unfortunately, is a really difficult country to eat out in for a vegetarian.  I don’t know what they eat at home, but the Spanish certainly seem to expect meat or seafood when they eat out.  We have to be careful that there isn’t tuna in the salads.  We have eaten a couple of times at a Chinese restaurant.

Castillo de Santiago

To begin with, our days were filled with walking around the town squares and down to the beach and wondering where our next meal was coming from.  Now that we are settled in, we have gone to some of the highlights.  The Castillo de Santiago dates from the 15th century.  It is almost completely intact (probably with some reconstruction) and it has to be among the plainest castles I have seen.  It was built to withstand artillery, so there is a double wall, and the interior walls are at least 3 feet thick.  The keep tower is hexagonal.  Queen Isabella is said to have first seen the Atlantic Ocean from its window in 1477. 

Palacio de Orleans-Bourbon
The other most notable building in the upper, old town is the Orleans-Bourbon Summer Palace from the 19th century, now the town hall.  It is a very striking orange and red building with beautiful doors and windows in the neo-mudejar, or Moorish, style.  The tour was in Spanish – even if it had been in English, I don’t think I would be clear about what branch of the French royal family lived here and why, but it is a lovely house with very nice gardens.

Entrance to Palacio

There will be more to post about the Doñana National Park across the Guadalquivir River and the sherry wine industry.  We have decided to return to the US on December 12 for a month or so.  On the way to Madrid we will also stop at Granada, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Roman aqueduct

On November 12, we arrived in Merida, Spain by train around 8 pm and took a taxi to our hotel.  On our previous trip to Spain, we had read about Merida, but not gotten there, so we were pleased to make it this time.  Our most important stop on our first night was to go around the corner from our hotel to the Calle John Lennon, where we found a pizza parlor for dinner.  It turns out that most of the streets in Merida are named after famous people, from Roman times to the present.  Otherwise, we found that Calle John Lennon was pretty much just a normal street.  This is a good place to add that we always felt comfortable walking around at night in all the places in Europe we have been.

The main attractions of Avila had been medieval; the main attractions of Merida are Roman.  It was created in 25 BC as Colonia Emerita Augusta for veterans of two of Rome’s legions, and as the capital of one of the three provinces of Roman Hispania.  The similarities with Nimes are obvious, and it was fascinating to compare their remains.

Roman bridge viewed from Alcazaba

Just a few blocks from our hotel was the Roman bridge across the Guadiana river.  This is still in use as a pedestrian bridge.  Its Roman origins are obvious, but it has also been kept up and restored many times.  There are two different aqueduct remains, but one of them turned out to be 17th century, although it followed much of the route of a Roman aqueduct, of which only three arches remain.  The water in both systems is carried from reservoirs that the Romans created with dams, and these are still used for water and flood control.

17th century aqueduct
Merida also has an Amphitheater, but it is much more ruined than the one in Nimes.  I am glad that we saw both, because otherwise the Merida one would have been harder to visualize completely.  On the other hand, Merida has a very impressive and well preserved Theater.  The innovation that the Romans made to the Greek theater was to add a “scaenae frons” as the magnificent and dramatic backdrop to the stage.  With two floors of columns and statues, it is a very imposing building, built to impress the masses with Roman pomp and ceremony.  I learned that the Amphitheater is two theaters put together to create the central action area – I had never thought of it that way.

Roman Theater

Merida now has a summer spectacular of classical theater on this stage, so this is a building which has been restored enough to continue using, just like the Amphitheater in Nimes.

Another classic Roman edifice that Merida has is a circus – the place where chariot races were held.  There is not a lot to see there; the stands are mostly not clearly delineated, and I could not tell how high up they went.  But the race track itself, and the central “spine” are still quite obvious, and the little exhibition room did a good job of describing the importance of this sport to the Romans, just like car racing for the modern world.

There are the remains of two forums in the center of Merida.  In the main one there is a Temple which is a great illustration of the fate of many ancient monuments.  After the Visigoths conquered the Romans, they built a church in the area and destroyed many pagan images, and then the Moors built a mosque, which the Christians tore down when they returned.  In the 17th century the local Count thought that the Roman pillars would make a good façade for his house, so he built his palacio within the temple.

Forum Temple

In the 1970s when the city was renovating everything, they decided to leave part of the house while restoring the forum.  The temple is also interestingly different because it has 2 rows of columns around it; one free standing and one with half pillars built into the walls of the temple.

Ducal Palace

Merida seems to be one of those European towns that keeps finding ruins every time someone starts to build something, including the Museum of Roman Art.  So there and at a government building site, they put the building up on piers so that the ruins could be left for excavation as time and money allowed.  They also have a very interesting Roman villa, called Mithreo’s House, which is well excavated and roofed over to protect the remains.

House of Mithreo

You can walk around the perimeter and they have good displays describing the rooms.  There are many frescoes and mosaics still in place, and it is a very interesting archeological site.  The Roman Art Museum was really excellent for its size.  The building has a large 3 story atrium in its center which fits the monumental scope and thrust of the Roman world.  The basement, as I said, is old walls and water channels still mostly waiting to be studied.  The main hall and 3 open floors along one side of it have many statues, frescoes and mosaics, as well as smaller articles.  We enjoyed learning about Mithreo, for instance, who is the god of infinite time, borrowed from the Persian’s Mithra, and who seems to have had a cult following in the city.

Museum of Roman Art
There was not much information about the Visigoths who succeeded the Romans, but there was a small museum about them with rather random stone carvings.  They were Christian barbarians by the time they took over from the Romans.  Merida is the first place we’ve been to with any Moorish remains.  There is a large citadel, the Alcazaba, still standing that was very near our hotel.  It dominated the entrance to the city over the Roman Bridge, incorporating all that is left of the ancient walls.  There is an interesting tower there which also had an underground passage that lead out to the walls and an old roman dike which the Moors modified into a cistern for the fort’s water supply.

God of Infinite Time

There was an excavation area which turned out to be down at a Roman level, and we were amazed to explore back around a building (that we hoped had toilets) and to instead discover stacks of mosaics.

Even the Basilica of Saint Eulalia, a fourth century martyr, is interesting mostly for the variety of remains from many eras found in its crypt.

Colonia Emerita Augusta

We also found the modern day city of Merida to be a pleasant town to wonder around in.  We happened to be there during a general strike called throughout Europe on November 14 to protest austerity measures.  Mostly the town was very quiet that day, and we did our part in trying not to engage in economic activities.  There was a march through town in the early evening, and I think maybe one in the morning in support of education, but as befits a small town, it was all quite low key.  As foreign visitors, we just tried to stay out of the way. 

Miscellaneous mosaics

Merida is also of note because we found our first vegetarian restaurant for weeks.  It is even harder to be vegetarian in Spain than in France.  The Shangri-La has been in business for about 2 years, the owner told us, and she feels like she has opened people’s minds about food choices and lifestyles.

We had 3 packed days in Merida and then left by train on the morning of November 16 on another slow “medium distance” train heading south though small towns on the plains and over some hills to Seville about noon, where we transferred to a local medium distance bus which took us 3 hours down to the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda on the mouth of the Guadalquivir River.  We feel like we have really reached the far corner of this continent.  We hope to settle down for an extended stay here.

Monday, November 19, 2012


The walls of Avila
Hotel Cancelas street

On the afternoon of November 8, we left Bayonne, France by train for Spain.  It is still true that one has to change trains at the Spanish border; in this case in the town of Irun.  Apparently the track gauge in Spain is different from that in the rest of Europe.  We were going to the town of Avila in north central Spain on a “Medium Distance” train, which meant that it stopped at a town about every half hour.  We went through the mountains while it was still light; forest-covered and craggy mountains and tunnels.  All of the mountains that we could see were not so high as to get above the tree line.  We arrived at Avila about 10 p.m. to the lovely hotel of Las Cancelas, which is right around the corner from the Cathedral in the old walled section of town.  And by corner I mean a narrow passage way between high stone walls that looked like the taxi cab would not be able to squeeze around.  We stayed in this hotel in 2003 when we visited Avila while Agnes was a student in Salamanca.  Even though we had been to Avila before, we were excited to return.

Avila view of plain
Avila is a wonderful medieval city with an intact wall built in the 12th century surrounding the old town.  Of course the modern city is about 4 to 5 times the size of the old one, but from the heights of the wall you can still see the entire city and the surrounding plain and encircling hills.  Like most European cities, it does not straggle out in suburbs with increasingly large homes and gardens, but has a pretty clear demarcation between town and farm land.  It is most well known as the home of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross in the 16th century.  Lest one get captivated by the sanctity, let us
remember that it was also the home, at least on occasion, of Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor, and that heretic burning occurred in the square outside of the walls near our hotel.  Apparently Saint Teresa approved.

Cathedral fortress
We went to many churches, monasteries and convents.  Many, but not all, have a connection with these saints.  Most are more Romanesque than Gothic, by which I mostly mean that the buildings seem heavy and thick-walled and very dark.  Even the ones where the Gothic arch is used and the nave can be much taller still are dark.  They do not have large stained glass windows letting in floods of colored light.  They have little tiny windows (which might have stained glass) high up.  They feel like fortresses.  In fact the Cathedral is built into the city wall and was part of the defensive fortifications.  It feels like a Church which kept up the Inquisition for a long time. 

Cathedral door
Many of the churches are beautiful in their own way.  The stone carving around the outside doors is quite fascinating.  Some of the interior carvings on the altars and sepulchers are intricate and very three dimensional even in bas-relief.  Many of the altars are gilded, but they do not shine out the way the Viennese ones did because of the low light.  Among the places we went to was the Royal Monastery of Saint Tomas Aquinas.  This was built by their royal highnesses Ferdinand and Isabella.  It has 3 cloisters, including one for the royal court, which would come to Avila in the summers.  It contains the sepulcher of their son Juan who died of smallpox at the age of 19.  He had been
Cloister of Saint Thomas Monastery
married for one year to the daughter of Emperor Maximilian of Austria.   Saint Teresa had her own personal confessional built into the wall of one of the cloisters and opening into the side chapel where she had so many ecstatic visions.  Part of the royal cloister is now called a Museum of Oriental art; 3 – 4 rooms with mostly Chinese art which the Dominican monks brought back from their mission work – nice small pieces, much of it Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian. 
Sepulcher of Prince Juan

We also went to the Convent of Santa Teresa, which was built on the site of the house where she was born.  There is a little chapel to the side of the main altar that is where the room used to be that she was born in.  Next to it is a small walled garden where she used to read as a child.  Below the convent is a museum devoted to the Saint.  Finally we went to the Monastery of the Incarnation, which is where Saint Teresa lived for 30 years.  There are 3 rooms open to the public. Two of them are recreations of what the convent has been like over the last 400 years, and the final one full of relics from Teresa’s life and a few from Saint John of the Cross.  There is a half-life size statue of Saint Joseph, whom she considered a personal father figure, whom she used to put on her abbess’s chair when she traveled.  When she returned, she would talk to the statue and he would tell her everything that had happened in the convent while she was gone.  There were also a number of other churches we went into besides the Cathedral itself – The Basilica of St. Vincent, the Chapel of Mosen Rubi, and the Church of San Pedro.  They were each interesting and different.

Although Avila primarily feels like a 16th century city, it does have other history.  New since we were last there was a museum devoted to the Vettonia culture of approximately 500 - 0 BC.  The main relic from their era and what they are most known for are Verracos, life size and smaller granite statues of bulls and boars scattered around the area.  The current best guess is that they were boundary markers and guardians.  These Ibero-Celtic people were eventually subdued by the Romans (Julius Caesar actually) and incorporated into the Roman province of Spain.  We also went to the Provincial Museum of Avila, which had archeological exhibits from Palaeolithic times and the Visigoths, as well as the Vettones and Romans.  There were even some artifacts from 19,000 BC that were found on the block between our hotel and the Cathedral.   Basically, everyone just skips the Moorish era.  The museum’s exhibit on traditional and early 20th century life in the area is quite interesting.  It is hard to remember how traditional and remote most of Spain was until after WW2.
Ron and verraco

Finally, we also went to a few 21st century exhibits.  There is a Center for Mysticism right outside the walls.  Their building and exhibits try to do the impossible and demonstrate the mystical experience through a series of small rooms with quotations, paintings and sculptures.  Saint John of the Cross is perhaps their biggest influence, but the quotations drew from many traditions and modern writers from around the world, and were reasonably inspiring.  However, most of the modern paintings and sculptures and multi-media pieces did not inspire me with insight into the mystic experience.  However, it was an interesting, but nearly impossible effort, and I gather that the Institute hosts many ecumenical conferences.  We also stopped in at a Modern Art gallery, Palacio Los Serrano, which had an exhibit which we actually liked of paintings by an Avila resident named Daniel Quintero – mostly portraits, but also some interestingly crooked landscapes.
Daniel Quintero

We had three and a half packed days in Avila.  We left by train in the early afternoon for Madrid and then a train to Merida to the west.  Avila is on a high plain – 3700 feet – and the train ride goes for quite a while along and down forested hills that I remembered from our last trip.  We were only an hour in the train station in Madrid and then on though the endless plains of Spain to Merida, which I will write about soon!