Author Archives: agnotarte

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.

27 – With friends in Madrid! April 29, 2013

I have had some trouble, worries rather, about the safety on my computer.  I was being attacked by a virus, I was thinking about a couple of friends who during the last year had their accounts hacked or whatever and they had to work hard to restore them.  What I did not think about was that I have a Mac and that they have a great reputation for security and that I have also their scanning programme which, of course, I did not think to use right away.

Friends came down from the north to spend time with me in Madrid, my friend Antonio, his novia, Montse and her sons, Martín and Diego, 11 and 15 respectively. Thanks, Diego, for reminding me to use my scanning programme.  Here we are in my favourite restaurant, Sama, in central Madrid celebrating my birthday.


We ate wonderfully well.  We then spent time walking around central Madrid, visiting the plazas and enjoying the people and the entertainers.


Here I am with my favourite, the bratty kid;  I was singing along with him.


Martín is enjoying swordplay with Puss n’ Boots.


Here he is trying to figure out how this lad is able to suspend himself in mid-air.


I am doing one of my necessary stretches, of course, hamming it up with Montse with Diego looking askance at adult behaviour.


The love birds with some cathedral in the background, from a later century and of no interest to this medievalist.


That’s me trying to be noticed next to the statue of Don Quixote in the Plaza de España.  It is great to have a photographer along.  I have shots of this statue of course without yours truly.


In the garden of Joaquin Sorolla’s house, an amazing late nineteenth century, early twentieth century Spanish artist.  Montse is quite the artist and has painted under the inspiration of this man but had never been to this museum which is absolutely full of his work. Try this link and be ready to spend time with it; <; If it doesn’t work, simply search museosorolla visita virtual.  It is one of the best that I have come across of this type.

I also led them to the tiny church of San Antonio de la Florida where Goya did the ceiling frescoes.  I much prefer them to those in the Sistine Chapel;  Goya actually painted real people, from the neighbourhood.  The basic story is of a miracle but he has little dramas going on in every corner of the cupola, the small round dome that is his canvas, bringing to life all the characters found in any neighbourhood of the period. Hopefully this will give you an idea of it: <;


A final shot of the five of us in Plaza del Sol.  Special thanks to my friends from the north, making the trek to Madrid to visit me.  Sunday we were also celebrating Montse’s feast day, Santa Montserrat.  The Spanish continue with this custom.

This past three and a half weeks has seen many highlights but the final weekend will be the special memory.  I think that it is in post #2 how it happened that the friendship between Antonio and me began.  Absolute serendipity!

26 – La Feria de Sevilla – April 20, 2013

I went to the fair yesterday in Seville, took the high speed train, 250 kilometres per hour,  through las huertas of the valley of the Gaudalquivir, one of the five major rivers of Iberia, joining together and feeding Córdoba and Seville. Las huertas surround every city, town and village in Spain.  They are the market gardens and orchards that feed the local population.  In the villages, of course, they are simply the private and community gardens of the locals.  Through the centuries, these cities had to be fed locally and Spain has ample good land and the weather to eat locally.  The 5 kilometre diet!  I did not recognize them at first, orchards with later maturing dates, but then it was clear.  I was surrounded by orange groves, stretching out in all directions, not quite as extensive as the olive groves between Córdoba and Granada, a bushy, dwarf variety to make the harvest so much easier.  Now I know the source of my morning, and at times, afternoon freshly-squeezed orange juice.

The Feria, ‘fair’ sounds prosaic for this event, takes place every spring and dates back to the mid 19th century, but comes from much older traditions. The focus is horses and carriages and Sevillanos parading throughout the afternoon, continually from around 2 to 8 o’clock.  I’ll start with a video;  I was comfortably sitting in the shade on the ground, enjoying the passing show.

There is a popular expression in Spain, dar paseo, simply means to go for a stroll.  But strolling is a fine art here,  practiced down through the centuries, particularly in the cool of the early evening and on weekend afternoons.  To be out and about, to be seen out and about, and to notice your neighbours who are out and about. (I am from the Valley, you know!) And dressed to the nines. The Spanish and Madrileños in particular have quite the reputation for the necessity of making a good impression.  The Feria is clearly a variation of this.  The horses and carriages, of all descriptions, dan paseo through the avenues of the Feria site, a large permanent site, the equivalent of  15 to 20 normal city blocks.  Casetas, not homes or shops, line these streets, meeting places for eating, drinking, singing and dancing throughout the afternoon and well into the evenings of this week-long event.  The carriages with their passengers simply circulate on a prescribed route for as long as they desire throughout these afternoons. No sense of a competition.  Gradually the casetas fill up;  most are private, associated with clubs, associations, societies, whatever.  Enough are open to the public.


The horses wear distinctive head decorations of different colours and often bells;  close your eyes and ignore the heat and it is time for a sleigh ride.  Just kidding!  35 degrees!  I’m delusional.


They come in all colours;  my favourite were the teams of black ones, short, not many hands high, and with amazing tails.  Breeds of horses developed since the time of the Caesars for conditions in Spain.


The men wear their traditional outfits, a short to mid-torso jacket, tight pants that come up to mid-torso (a curious look), leather boots (at times, leg chaps), and a distinctive hat. We are probably more familiar with this look from what we know of ranch culture in Argentine.  The ships to the New World left from Seville, the river was navigable in those centuries, and the people of Andalucia would have been prominent in the waves of Spaniards heading out to make their fortunes and to find new lives for themselves.


The young son continuing in the tradition of his father and grandfathers, anticipating many years of the Feria in Seville.


And the women of Sevilla are in their absolute glory.


A whole carruaje full, all dressed alike.  Inevitably there are shops devoted to this style; El Cortés Inglés, the very upscale national chain of department stores, has its own department.  A young woman I met on the train back to Córdoba, from Jerez, the home of sherry (how the Brits dealt with the pronunciation of the town – phonetically, Hay (very aspirate)-raithe, proudly showed me a photo on her phone of her outfit.


Some even made it up to sit behind their novio – always discreetly side-saddle.


A feeling of comfortable joy permeated the grounds, an affirmation of a culture that has endured for centuries and will continue to endure into the future.  Happy to be an observer, clearly aware that I was in the presence of interconnecting, overlapping families, societies, parishes, neighbourhoods, villages, etc. Each seemed to be very present and probably very much mindful of their lifetimes of coming to the Feria.  Nothing needed to change, to be different from all the years before.  We can get so caught up in the ‘I wonder what’s new at the…..’.

I made my way back to the historic centre of Seville and enjoyed a plate of shrimps with a glass of manzanilla, a type of sherry from that town down the road, Jerez.  Recommended by my friend, Antonio, from the north.  When in Seville……


Tonight I am going to an equestrian show at the Royal Stables and then a special nocturnal tour of the Mezquita.

25 – the patios of Córdoba – April 18, 2013

Córdoba has welcomed me.  There are almost too many things to see, monuments, museums, parks, historical neighbourhoods, local specialities in the restaurants, artisans, special attractions.  My hotel is in the ancient barrio of narrow lanes, a warren of walkways, occasionally interrupted by a vehicle that has been allowed through, and lined with walls of the houses and shops.  Along any of these quieter ones, closed doorways do not betray what is hidden behind them, some very old and almost forbidding, others more contemporary but alluding to the past.


That is definitely a Moorish horseshoe arch and the fine woodworking detail reflects the ancient Islamic art seen in the many doors of the Alhambra and in many a Christian church.  If the family is in residence, the doors are opened in the morning to reveal an entrance hall and a tantalizing glimpse of what is behind the wrought iron gate.


A traditional Cordoban inner sanctuary, un patio, around which the rooms of the home radiate. LIke the homes and villas of the Romans, Moors and other peoples around the Mediterranean. The exteriors of the home are simply white walls which reveal nothing of the life within.  Absolute privacy and tranquility in the midst of a congested barrio.

I took advantage of an organized tour of some patios the other evening. I joined my guide, Rafael, and two couples, one from Barcelona, the other from Zaragoza, both favourite cities of mine.  We were in a neighbourhood beyond the pale, beyond the concentration of Cordoba’s most ancient streets with its many monuments. I always like getting into the other neighbourhoods of a city, to see some glimpses of how the residents live.  The first one we visited had been built in the 19th century by immigrants from rural areas.  It is now gussied up, partly as a result of competitions for the most beautiful courtyard, like those for England’s most charming villages.


Yes, it’s me, in my sandals.  Too many geraniums and petunias for my taste.  Behind me is the well for the use of this household.


What genuinely surprised and pleased me was that within the confines of this small space four families lived.  Their living quarters would have been small, primarily for sleeping.  The four families, one would have been upstairs, a second on the ground floor, the other two in other corners of the courtyard,  cooked communally in the patio. The intense blue is an Arab influence and is also quite common framing windows and doors in southern Portugal.


A third living quarters towards the rear.  Interesting to imagine this patio without all the potted plants, with four families from the impoverished countryside living together trying to get a foothold in the city and provide for their children.  The trunk in the middle is that of a lofty palm.


I couldn’t resist this photo, not only the enormous lemons but the shadow of that palm tree. With the door to the street closed, this is a world unto itself.  And for those more prosperous, those who pass by would have had no idea of what’s within, another characteristic of Roman and Muslim domestic architecture.

A second house, located in a centuries old building that might have housed up to twenty families at a time has five patios; the one we visited was difficult to capture because of its intimate dimensions, but here is some of the resident canary’s welcome and some of our constant conversation.

The better video, showing the two levels, unfortunately was taken vertically by my camera and ended up on its side in the blog.  One more skill still to learn.

The third patio turned out to be the home of our guide, Rafael.  What is interesting is that it was constructed only about ten years ago, lovingly faithful to the ancient traditions.


I am just inside the outer door looking down the hallway, the walls lined with some of his collection of 18th and 19th century pottery and other artefacts.


What a life?  Daily tours, two hours of interesting conversation, a wonderful way to make a living and contribute to his community.  In the busy months ahead, he will take up to 30 persons at a time and I am sure that he gets the crowds.  Good for him!

Our final one (I am leaving one out), once again in a street of walls and closed doors was built originally in the 15th century as a military barracks, and was at various times, a hospital, a convent, and then privately owned. Over the last 100 years, it has been the birthplace of a well known artist, Anna Lopez and of a much honoured poet, Pablo Garcia Baena.


To the right is the top of the well which is still used for the daily task of watering all the blossoms.


One final picture instead of a thousand words.  A wonderful memory from this week in Cordoba which is daily providing me with a treasury of memories.  Rafael was passionate and very knowledgeable about the history of the tradition and of his neighbourhood. The other members of the group contributed well, each in their own way.


24 – The Great Mosque of Córdoba – April 16, 2013

Clearly one of the wonders of the world, built during the centuries of Islamic rule in Andalusia, expanded by different rulers.  An enormous size, 180 X 130 metres.  Very difficult to capture its dimensions given its location in a neighbourhood of narrow lanes.


Along the sides, amazingly beautiful doors and windows, 12 in total, the doors themselves covered in brass.


The intricacy is breathtaking and note the absence of human and animal depictions, celebrating the ineffable, the unknowable, Allah, in beauty and pattern.


856 columns, in marble, reused from various Roman buildings.  With horseshoe arches in distinctive red and white pattern;  also arches on top of arches to raise the height of the ceiling.


I took dozens of photos;  each captures and doesn’t capture the feeling, the sensation of being in this building, this prayer room for the Cordoban community a thousand years ago.

The mihrab, on the eastern wall, in the direction of mecca, to orient those praying in this direction.


The prayers in Arabic around the arch;  calligraphy is a key element in their art and architecture, almost invariably words from the Quran; the word glimmer in the morning light, coming through the strategically placed windows in the cupola.


And the stunning cupola rising above the interior space.


How about another attempt to capture the interior?


Cordoba was captured by the Christians in 1236.  The residents, a mixture of Muslims, Jews and Christians, continued to live together. Two of the groups prayed in the mezquita;  the Christians did build chapels around the exterior walls.  They closed the fountains, though, the source of water for making ablutions, an essential part of the preparation for prayer for Muslims.  There is some suggestion that in response to the Arab baths and the ablutions before prayer the Christians considered it holier to stay dirty;  pagans bathed, they didn’t.

In the early 16th century, 300 years later, 300 years after this new variety of convivencia, that a Christian church was planned to be built in the middle of the mezquita. The residents, Christian and Muslims, objected together.  The intervention by the distant king, Carlos V, who had never been to Cordoba, made the project a reality.  He came to Cordoba after it had been built and apparently said, ‘you have built what you or anyone else might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’  What does he mean?  ‘You have built.’  He made the final decision.   This Charlie also made the decision to build an incompatible Renaissance palace at the Alhambra.  Now look at the mezquita from the Roman bridge.


You have to look carefully;  where the bridge ends, you will see a building of uniform height which stretches quite a bit to the right, just beyond the lower buildings near the river bank – in the first part are recognizable five rounded arches.  This is the eastern wall of the mezquita.  Rising in the middle of the lower building, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, is the enormous Christian church.  I could easily go into a rant.  I won’t.  The photo speaks for itself.  You can only imagine what the central part is like inside the mosque and the effect it has.  An abomination!  After centuries of convivencia, centuries of intolerancia.   Please Francis over there in Rome, tell them to undo this.  Restore the great mosque to its full original beauty.  Give it back!  What an opening to other faiths, to the equality of these faiths as faiths important to their faithful, the three peoples of the Book.

My shortest post, but the photos tell the story.

23 – Finally, my favourite little church in all of Spain – April 14, 2013

The photo I use on my site forms the backdrop of a spectacular bit of architecture from the late seventh century,  the Ermita of Santa Mara de Lara de Quintanilla de Las Viñas.  In my third post way back in October, I wrote about my first visit there, expecting it to be a relatively quick one, to take pictures of a site that I had read about and how that day became one of the hooks that bring me back here.  In a wonderful bit of serendipity, I ended up hanging around and climbing this chunk of rock called the Pena of Lara.  If you check back, you will have the whole story including photos of my friends and me climbing on a beautiful 20 degree February afternoon.  That same day found me in the Casa Galin, a small hotel in a nearby historical village where I am now writing this post.  It is my home away from home in Spain. I am welcomed back each time and recognized by some of the villagers.

Trusting that you have checked back and seen some of the lay of the land, I present you with a photo of where I was standing at the end of our hike up, taken recently by a friend of Antonio (he is the guide at the church, my friend) a hang-glider. Yes, that is snow.

Pena de Lara hang-glider 1

The church was probably a small monastery built by aristocratic patrons in the decades just before the arrival of the Moors in 711.  Only the apse and crossing survive; the nave would have collapsed at some point after the building had been abandoned and the stones taken to be used in other constructions.  Look at the day – almost 20 degrees perfection! Like my first day here.


The tiny apse has three levels of remarkable friezes on the exterior;  using such a high level of ornamentation was a traditional device to emphasize the importance (in Spanish, you would say la transcendenciaof this part of the church, the apse.  Each level conveys a different message, the importance or transcendencia of the frieze grows from the lowest to the highest.  The first level is a simple series of rolls with palm leaves and grapes or dates alternating.  The palm leaf was a popular motif – the classical Roman symbol of victory here adapted to signify the victory of those faithful to Christ.  The shell signified someone or something of importance, of trascendencia, and in this case, the doorway to the apse.


The second level is more refined, a procession of birds, another symbol adapted from Roman art, symbolizing the procession of the souls.  In the mix, the tree of life.IMG_2620

The upper level is a series of 10 animals, arranged from the middle moving outwards in pairs:  lions (male and female),  deer, griffins, possiby bears, and a type of cattle.  Each has theological signifcance for the medieval mind.  The lion is incredibly ambiguous, the king of beasts like Christ is king of the world, and at the same time, a dangerous animal who could tear you apart, like the devil who could destroy your soul. The medieval people also believed without question the legend that newborn lions were born either dead or blind, were kept in a cave by the female and on the third day the male entered and brought them to life or gave them sight by licking them – all symbols of the saving power of the water of baptism and of Christ’s resurrection from the cave (tomb) on the third day.  A curious doorway into the medieval mind!


The style of the sculpture is refined, sophisticated, almost unknown at this time anywhere in Europe although we only have what has survived for comparison, the influences most  likely from the Middle East.

Inside is another story, a very different style, almost as if the work had been done by children, deeply carved, two-sided in parallel lines.  At the entrance to the apse, columns (reused from a Roman building) and imposts – a large type of capital.  On the right, flanked by two angels, Christ as the sun, the rays emanating from his head borrowed from classical portrayals of Apollo, the Roman sun god.


On the left, Christ as the moon.  I have found this motif in a variety of other places in churches in Spain.  Source?  Very simple, John’s Book of Revelation, one of the key books of the New Testament in medieval Spain, giving insight into their obsession with the coming Apocalypse.  John writes that Christ is the sun and the moon, the alpha and the omega.  To the left and right of Christ as sun god, you can see the Greek letters for the alpha and the omega.


The two very different styles – the same or different workshops?  “Well, I have a theory, it is my theory, and mine alone.” Thank you, Miss Ann Elk.  I shall take over now.

A couple of years ago, at the end of a day, Antonio and I went for a couple of hours walking through the hills.  We returned at dusk and reopened the church.  I came with a supply of candles and saw these more simply carved sculptures in candle light and it all made sense, at least to me.  In the early morning darkness before the sunrise, the time of mass, the effect of the candles on these Christ figures would have been extraordinary, particularly for the lay people in the nave, the shepherds – reinforcing, reinforcing the divinity of Christ in the eyes and hearts of these uneducated ones who would have had a very rudimentary sense of what their faith was all about.  Two different purposes for the sculpture – the ones outside and the ones inside;  therefore, two very different styles done by the same team of sculptors.  At home, I actually have some short videos of the candlelight working on these imposts.

One final shot, of the ermita from up top, taken that day in February 2009 before we made our descent.

IMG_2874On this beautiful Saturday (yesterday), with spring clearly here, I spent the afternoon chatting with visitors to the ermita (Antonio is bored after too many years of doing this), discussing its history and sculpture.  Great conversation, even debate;  one visitor had nothing but disdain for the architecture from this period.  I had fun convincing him of its value and worth, or least, trying to convince him; you know how these Gothic freaks can be!  My brief life as a tour guide.

Yikes, my longest post so far.  No apologies;  this could have been much longer. I barely touched the material in this tiny church.  Count your blessings!