Monthly Archives: October 2013

33 – Serendipity in Girona October 29, 2013

I covered a lot of kilometres yesterday, around 480, to get to a familiar and favourite place, Girona, an ancient city an hour or so north of Barcelona.  I have been here a number of times, it has an extensive medieval barrio, rows of colourful apartments along the river, a sense of being here for thousands of years, from preRoman days, great museums and restaurants.  I was going to relax for a few days, visit a few other familiar places and maybe some friends, and deal with my growing fatigue from travelling, of being away. But it is festival week in Girona.  I had no idea.  Serendipity!

I am staying in a suburban hotel, 4 km from the centre, quite a change from the ancient tiny villages of the last 12 days.  I took the bus downtown and arrived in the middle of festivities.  It is the festival of San Narcis, the patron of Girona.  A bishop, martyr, from the 4th century who might have been born here of a noble family, but who might have preached in Germany.  Legends.  His tomb is in the cathedral.  In the 13th century, forces from (what is now) France invaded and occupied the cathedral which at the time was outside the walls.  The French thought of desecrating the tomb of this popular saint but it backfired on them.  When they opened it, swarms of flies attacked them and chased them from the city, thus saving it.  John Cleese probably knows this.

I was wandering through the narrow streets, visiting favourite places, when I heard music.  I do not know what it was all about as the ongoing narration was in Catalan, but it was fun.  Masked characters, one with a giant fly on his nose, paraded through the streets, with a live band, followed by hundreds of delighted kids with their parents (holiday from school).

I caught up with them when there were just three characters, the lad with the fly on his nose (he was also the storyteller), the monk and another.  Every block or two, they stopped, continued telling the story and another character or two arrived.  In the video above, there is also a soldier and a wealthy couple.  The streets are bedecked with fly banners.


They eventually made it to the broader walking street, Las Ramblas, where there were booths set up selling cheeses, cured meats, breads and pastries, honey, etc. and many sidewalk cafes.


Everyone was having a very good time, not only the children, but the adult kids, most of whom were most likely from Girona, enjoying this annual tradition, and treasuring their own childhood memories, maybe even their first San Narcis.  They continued to add characters, including a farm girl who threw cabbage leaves in all directions (hey, it was in catalan;  I have no idea what was happening).  Look at this bread!  Oh for some of that fig jam from that farmhouse stay in Montblanc.


The final two character were probably the mayor and an elderly nun.IMG_4248

This brought the parade and the storytelling to an end (the moral of the story?  don’t invite an elderly nun to your frolicking).  Before I give you a second video, of the final dance, I want to show you my favourite face, that of the wealthy man;  what a wonderfully smug smile – a medieval Donald Trump. He is carrying his money purse for all to see.

IMG_4245And now the dance…

In the morning, I am planning on heading into town, walking preferably through the many neighbourhoods, to find out the next two days’ schedule of special events.  Staying around could be the best idea.

32 Calatañazor – ancient and rustic October 29, 2013

There are some excellent sites for finding hotels of all descriptions, in the major cities, in the smallest of towns, anywhere in Spain and I presume, anywhere in the world.  I was checking out accommodation in a small provincial capital, Soria.  With limited choices, the sites will offer you places within a certain distance.  As a result, I found this village, 30 km from the city.


Calatañazor, tucked away on a promontory, with its own castle, overlooking fields that have been cultivated for at least most of the second millennium. The church is 12th century.  The site is legendary;  a battle between Christian forces emerging more and more from the north and the Moors led by Almanzor, the scourge of the Christians, victorious in 57 rampaging campaigns against them, might have taken place here in 1002 and might have resulted in an injury which led to his death.  It looks very rustic, but my small hotel was very comfortable and, as they say, beautifully appointed.  The highlight of my dinner was a salad with marinated wild rabbiit, partridge and quail. Second course was merluza (hake – when I say this word, I feel that I need to apologize for ‘this chronic cough’) in a green salsa with shrimp and clams. I didn’t have my camera with me.


Every building was different, constructed in whatever materials were available, most of them are inhabited, many with new windows but still with their distinctive chimneys. This is still an active farming community.


This is my hotel;  it has been given a new roof and the chimneys are similar to others in the village.  You will notice that there are cliffs on one side of the village, typical of the location of so many villages and larger towns, for defensive purposes.  In the other direction, farmland.


These are located just behind my hotel.


Here’s one where so many different materials have been used in the walls.  There is a small shop specializing in local cheeses;  La Casa de Queso.


Main street with its arcades from the other direction.


And oh yes, there is a castle.


Orson Welles filmed scenes from Chimes at Midnight in Calatañazor back in the 60s.  And now for some more tapas, some snippets from my ramblings.

Spain has needed to build dams to create reservoirs.  Looking at maps of Spain, most of the lakes have been formed in this way.  For irrigation, for hydro.  This has inevitably led to the displacement of villages and populations.  I was crossing through a particularly beautiful part of the country, the Sierra de Demanda, winding roads, incredible vistas, and came across a beautiful man-made lake.  The water levels are down by this time of the year, after the long, hot summer and vestiges of the old village start to reappear.  The foundations of the village church and a building closer to shore.  Eerie.  No, double e.  Not the big lake back home.



In the 30s, 600 people lived in this village.  Less than one hundred live in the new village on higher ground.  Progress.  And apparently it was not well handled by the powers-that-were.  Que sorpresa! 

Some of the beautiful farmland in La Rioja, famous for its wines.  So much of their soil is red.  Always hills or mountains in the distance.  Always.IMG_3964

This is a famous monastery, Suso. Its origins are Visigothic in the mid 6th century.  Some of the building dates to this period, with Visigothic horseshoe arches.  I was, of course, very excited but not allowed to take photos in the interior. Much of the present building is mozarabe, from the 9th century, built by Christians who had been living in the south and who were beginning more and more to come up to the northern parts to join up with the Christians already living there.


I did sneak this one from the outside looking in , could not resist and the wonderful guide was preoccupied with questions.


In the scriptorium of this monastery, the Spanish language in its written form was born. Spanish would have arisen in the streets, a village version of Latin.  In the margins of a 9th century manuscript, monks a few centuries later wrote short comments in the margins in three different identifiable languages, Latin, Castillian (Spanish) and Basque. This document still exists.

I had had to take a small bus from the village to this location;  I was able to walk back through the forest after the tour.


Moving through the early morning mists, the remnants of a rainy night, into the sunshine.


One final photo.  I just made mention of the Basque language.  Scholars have no idea where it comes from.  They have tried to connect it to the Indo European roots of most of the other European languages.  They have even suggested from it is a survival from early forms of humans, Cro Magnum possibly.  Here is a sign in a village where I have been staying, in Spanish and in Basque, both official languages in this part of Spain.  The big word is town hall.  You will understand the rest of the Spanish but look at the Basque – there is no connection at all.


Looking forward to your comments.

31 Renewing a friendship October 23 2013

I went back to the little Visigothic chapel in the isolation of the northern meseta in Spain, landscape that was adapted by Sergio Leone years ago to make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Outcrops of rock, mesas, sierras, rolling fields of various soil colours, vineyards, forests, scrub land, tiny centuries-old farming villages each with their church tower. I have come to love this landscape.

One of my early posts talks about my first visit here,  one with the straightforward purpose of seeing the church, taking the necessary photos and then carrying on to the next stop on my list;  I was taking advantage of reading week at York and skipping classes for the following week to collect my own personal archive of photos of early medieval Spain.  A beautiful 20 degree sunny February day, an early spell of good weather for this part of Spain!  I clicked photos and then started chatting with Antonio, the guide.  His friends showed up and at closing time they invited me to join them climbing the Peña of Lara, the mesa up behind the church.  The rest is history.  The photo on every post of my blog is what we climbed. Antonio is the friend who came down to Madrid at the end of April with his girlfriend and her two sons to help me celebrate my birthday. (Post #27)

I arrived at the ermita yesterday morning, totally surprising him.  I had made it clear that I was staying in the northeast and not taking the long detour to visit.  I had visited in April when I was travelling in the central part of the country.  Daily phone calls upon my arrival repeated this decision.  I lied and found it easy to do over the phone.  I even had the audacity to call him about 45 minutes before I showed up, claiming I was far away in the Pyrenees, but feeling somewhat sad that I hadn’t decided to make a quick visit.  Such deceit!  It was fun.   Here we are in front of the ermita (with the help of some French tourists).

IMG_3929We spent about 6 hours chatting in Spanish, catching up, sharing photos, talking to a number of tourists who showed up.  He suggested a hike at closing time in the nearby woods.  I wanted to climb up the Peña.  No problem.


About half way – wonderful play of light and shadows, continually changing.

IMG_3942I’ve made to the top;  in the spring, those distant mountains are always snow-capped.

We sat on the ledge for a while and then I needed to be silly.


As the late afternoon progressed, it became sunnier with a wonderful play of the light on the autumn colours below.


The final two are my favourites, the evening sun in the valley framed by the rocks and the distant hills, and a close-up of the ruins of a tenth century castle – pretty good sense of depth!


I am realizing that Antonio has not appeared in any photos, although he is in the tail end of the video.  Here he is, a live and well beside a memorial to a young person from the area.


He is very active and often does this climb on his own after work.  I slept a full nine hours after this.  I will be back hopefully in this area in the spring.  I have come to feel very at home in this landscape and in the nearby village of Covarrubias.  Walking into this village an hour or so later, the woman who runs the small gift shop specializing in local products, jams etc., recognized me from the accumulation of my earlier visits, purchases and conversations. Such a good feeling!

30 Albarracín – a magical delight!

Albarracín was the capital of one of the many small Moorish kingdoms, after the united caliphate broke apart in the early 11th century.  Like the 20 some other taifas, the court here was synonymous with luxury, scholarship, music, poetry and scientific and medical advances.  Perusing a history of the place, I came across evidence of sophisticated tools developed here to operate on cataracts.  This is what I saw in the distance as I approached for the first time.

IMG_3660The town is situated in a powerful strategic position on a river where two gorges meet.  The walls in the distance protect the rear flank.  Along the river bank and climbing the sides of the gorge is the town site.


Yes I have taken this photo from up near that wall.  It wasn’t that difficult a climb;  count to 50 steps, take a brief rest, you can do it, you old fart!  Here is another angle.  Now I have to choose from dozens to give you a quick sense of the place.


Of course, the Christians, after the reconquista, ended up with the highest building.  What looks like a pile of rocks to the right of the church, is the remains of the Moorish castle, the alcazar.  Enough of these long shots.  Here we are in downtown Albarracin;  one of the remaining gates and the town’s most famous building, Casa Julineta.


It curiously makes me think of Picasso and cubism.  Did he really have to wait until the twentieth century to invent it?  Notice the typically narrow streets.  My tiny hotel is tucked in immediately to the right of this house.


Posado del Adarve. A wonderful landlord, Pablo.  Very helpful and always willing to chat;  he has a library of guide and history books of the area for the use of clients on the second floor.  The hotel is actually built into the defensive wall – notice the gate.  Here is the view from my window.  Buenos días!


Notice the cliffs on the other side.  Defensive choice of the location.  Toledo, Cuenca and Segovia, cities which I have visited, were all similarly located.  The next photo was taken just on the other side of that gate (in the shadows to the right) looking up at the ascending wall.

IMG_3741I did climb it early one evening.  It was worth it.


And here’s the proof that I did it (as if you needed it).


I went up as far as the square tower;  earlier photo was taken from there.  Now for a few more town shots. This was taken just down the lane from my hotel.


In these ancient villages, some of the buildings do rise at least six, even eight stories.  Amazing. Here is the street between this and my hotel.

IMG_3639And tucked in behind these doorways are homes, shops, bars, and restaurants.  Now I didn’t take my camera.  I just went out a while ago to eat lightly.  The restaurant is only a few doors from the hotel.  I wasn’t quite sure what the page devoted to ‘mandoditos’ was about.  It turned it just another word for tapas.  Without thinking, I ordered 8; the young woman said that she would choose.  What a plate!  What a feast!  I would be embarrassed to show you the photo. I ate like an adolescent and the endorphins are multiplying (with the help of some tinto, of course.)  Good night, buenas noches, mis amigos!  I will gladly return here to show you around, depending on when your flight sets down.

29 Teruel and the world of mudejar architecture

Teruel is a small, ancient city in the south of Aragon.  It was a Moorish capital and was eventually reconquered  by the Christians.  Within its walls (there are fragments of the wall as well as some towers and surviving gates),  is a feast of mudejar art and architecture, a curious blend of Christian and Moorish elements that create an unique form only found in Spain. In Teruel itself are found the finest examples of the form.


The San Martin tower is the most famous and also the hardest to photograph;  it is tucked between buildings in a typically narrow street.  The basic elements are brick and ceramics.


This close-up is actually from one of the others;  it shows clearly the decorative use of brick and ceramics as well as the reliance on geometric patterns.  There are five of these towers in the city;  very quickly they do start to look alike.


The ceiling on the narrow passageway up to the various levels in the tower has also been carefully and simply designed in brick.IMG_3722

This is the upper room, also beautifully designed, the Christian bell tower inspired my the Islamic minaret.IMG_3711

This is a warehouse of a farm co-operative, tucked away on a side street, but it also reveals the mudejar influence in its beautiful but more simply designed brickwork.   I could show you so many more corners of Teruel.  It is also well known for its modernismo architecture, in vogue in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Spain.  Gaudi was definitely influenced by it and influenced it. This building is found on the Plaza del Torico in the centre of Teruel.

IMG_3677You could  say that the upper windows are adorable, almost too adorable, but this is typical of modernismo.  Here is a beautiful simple solarium window on a more elaborate building.


My aesthetic tends to like the individual elements rather than the accumulation of them.  Teruel is not all medieval, mudejar and moderismo;  look at the impressive strength and beauty of this public building overlooking a park.IMG_3730

It takes its inspiration from castle walls;  the upper floor and upper solarium treatments are also reflect traditional architecture.

Finally I have to describe another fine lunch.  Come to Aragon and Catalonia for the great food of Spain.  On a quiet street, away from the busy public squares and outdoor cafes:  a risotto with wild mushrooms (’tis the season), small shrimp and asparagus.  I’ll say it again;  risotto fine enough to make any Italian chef envious.


Oh yes, and the red wine.  On the label a wonderful sentiment:  three centuries before this era, the Romans took care of our vines, then the Visigoths, the Arabs, the Christians and now those of us of the present day.  Second course, confit of duck in a dried fruit sauce.


Suculento!  Works in any language.  As tender and flavourful as the duck I enjoyed in a tiny village in the Pyrenees last year, at twice the price, seriously!  I did choose dessert (which I rarely do) but the ice cream was described as mudejar, probably because of the layer of cinnamon on top.

IMG_3729Very friendly service complimented the meal, two young Turolinos ready to chat with this old fart of a Canadian.  Now to head back to my amazing village for some siesta time.  The post about this village, Albarracín, will show up in a few days time.

28 A selection of tapas from España October 18, 2012

I have thought of titling a post in this way for quite a while.  Tapas?  Sorry, not the eating kind, but a selection of smaller tidbits from my wanderings so far, rather than a post on one theme.

I am staying on a farm.  I am writing this from the balcony of my room (it’s bigger than the very comfortable room), the daily late afternoon breeze cooling the heat of a degree sunny day.  I am looking out on vineyards and olive groves, with hills in the distance.  Here’s the house (I’m on the middle balcony).


A wonderful young couple run the farm and the bed and breakfast, Mónica and Ferran, with their 6 year old son, Ivan (pronounced with a b sound).  It’s a 10 minute walk down a dusty land to a walled village, Montblanc, walled with 30 some tours. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, interesting shops and bar/restaurants.


Within a few miles is one of the great monasteries of Spain, Poblet, begun in the 12th century by French Cistercian monks who put the emphasis back on the simplicity and austerity in the Benedictine Rule, and on developing the local rural economy.


This is the hall, 180 metres long, where the monks slept in past centuries.  Amazing simplicity of design, very powerful.

I have mentioned to friends my impression of the Spanish as a people with a strong sense of the visual, of design.  In a corner of the monastery, a corner that was restored, a young artist influenced by Gaudi and modernismo in design, was hired to fashion a handrail.  This is the amazing result.


Every day I see examples like this that leave me totally charmed by this culture, by this people. Here is a lamp holder over the doorway of a house in a tiny village high in the hills.


Near Montblanc is a second great Cistercian house from the 12th century, Santa Creus.  They do museums and galleries well in this country and today I was treated to the finest introduction that I have ever been privileged to enjoy.  It began as an audiovisual presentation, a voice talking about the world in which he lived, of violence and inane pursuits, motivating him to retire to an isolated monastery to pursue his form of perfection.  Then the screen disappeared and we were looking at an actual scaffolded wall, with the stones and tools that would have been used to build the monastery by the monks themselves, with a soundtrack of the noises of construction; another curtain opened and before us as the sun filtered through a door was a typical medieval monastic room, with evidence of the daily life of work and prayer, the sacks of grain, the wine press, the table set from the meals in silence, etc.


A door opened and we were then invited into the original scriptorium;  the narration continued with slides showing manuscript pages on the wall. A final door opened and we were in the actual cloister, Santa Creus’ second one.IMG_3524

Very impressive.  I am remembering the audiovisual presentation at Ste Marie among the Hurons in Midland, the film ends, the screen rises and we walk out into the reconstructed village.IMG_3550

A capital in the larger cloister.  I love romanesque capitals and corbels (under the eaves) – so much fun, at times religious, at times expressions of the life of the village, at times clearly pagan.  Here I am trying to capture a sense of the soaring height and simplicity of the central nave of the church.


Now for a change of taste. I am in wine country, one of many in Spain, the home of cava, the Spanish champagne.  In the early twentieth century, a regional government agency set up co-operatives to help the individual farmer to prosper.  These are still at the heart of the wine industry in Catalonia. My farm hosts market their wine through the local co-operative.  And these government offices hired interesting architects, those working in the style referred to as modernismo, to lend value and prestige to the undertakings particularly as this was a new kind of venture.


This is the co-op building in a town close to Montblanc.  I toured a museum in the building and the interior great room with its enormous vats of fermenting juice, with its interior roof arches reflecting the exterior design, is as impressive as any romanesque church. And, I didn’t take my camera into the museum.  The use of brick comes down from the Romans through the Moors and such a building is clearly in the mudejar tradition, about which you will hear more in the next post.

I can’t title this ‘tapas’ without at least one food photo.  This a a warm goat cheese salad, the first course in yesterday lunch high up in the hills.


It is easy to notice the glass of tinto;  only those in the know will pick out the Barcelona football daily, a must read while I am in Spain.  And what’s outside the window?


A flat topped mountain which must stretch for 10-15 kilometres and which dominates that landscape for as far as the eye can see.