Category Archives: travel in Spain

21 – Salamanca, past, present and future – April 11, 2013

I have finally made it to Salamanca, an ancient university city, founded in the 12th century, of similar vintage as Oxford, Coimbra in Portugal and Bologna in Italy, located in the northern mesata, tablelands, with prairie-like fields of grain extending to beyond the horizons in all directions.  It is built primarily of a golden sandstone, very reminiscent of Oxford and of Cotswold villages.  And, of course, it has its own Plaza Mayor, the impressive section on the left with balconies for the royal family when in attendance at events in the square.


I had the opportunity to enjoy a beer in the outdoor café across the way as the sun was setting and was able capture some of the sandstone’s marvellous glow at this time of the day.


If you go back to the first photo, you will notice of course that there are many people in the square;  it is a university town and the streets and squares are absolutely filled with 20 somethings.  I think that the city has to hire old folks to stroll about to maintain some sense of balance.  On top of it all, on this day , just beyond the old walls in the open air, a rock concert was taking place with an estimated 6 thousand youngsters enjoying the live band and inevitably littering the parkland.  And the whole scene dramatized in a curious way the conjunction of past, present and future in this city.


I am actually standing on a Roman bridge which crosses the river to the right, 26 some arches, at least 16 were part of the original span built in the first century of this era.  The church of Santiago in the middle distance is 12th century Romanesque. The curious stone animal is a Varraco that dates from the megalithic period (Stonehenge and other such circles as well as dolmens, burial sites that are found across Europe from around 5000 years ago).  They are found in Spain and their function might have been to assert territorial control or for religious, ceremonial reasons.   And wonderfully loud raucous rock music to bring all these ages together, of course, in the presence of kids between the ages of 16 and 24 and this one old fart. And the cathedrals (Salamanca has two) presiding over the afternoon.


I chose this photo from the bridge to show how it is still used in this pedestrian-intensive city;  the concert is behind those trees at its far end.  Excuse the cloudy skies.

The cathedrals and university buildings are primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Renascentista Style – popularized in Italy and elsewhere.


I do not like this style of architecture.  I prefer Romanesque, 11th and 12th century, rounded arches, with relatively simple sculptural additions.  The cathedral is overdone and quite simply makes me uncomfortable to be around and in.  It is simply my preference, my taste, developed to a degree from the time I have spent in the back valleys of Spain searching out small rural parish churches.  I have done this often enough that the simple stone work now gives me a buzz.  Now if I had been alive when this cathedral was being built, would I have been bothered, even been angry at this new fang dangled style.  Romanesque buildings were possibly and probably torn down to build it.  Would anybody else in the town have been upset by this careless neglect of the old and preference for the new?  Did anyone care about what was happening to their neighbourhood? I have found the keys at times to Romanesque village churches in order to see the interiors only to be disappointed, even angry because of the renovations, modifications, “updatings” – “oh, let’s change this old way for the new way” – so many have Baroque altars, everything painted in gold. I first impulse is to lock up and return the key as quickly as possible, muttering “ba-roken, ba-roken” under my breath.  I have spent time in Oxford, with its many colleges, each built in a different part of a different century, in somewhat different and evolving styles.  We do not notice unless we are art historians.  A noted Victorian scholar was so incensed by the “new” look of a recently built college that he purposely changed the route of his daily walk so as not to have to see what he thought was an abomination.  Would anybody in 16th century Salamanca have thought of this cathedral as an abomination?  Were the residents of this ancient city through the centuries concerned about the urban landscape or is this just a 20th and now 21st century concern?

A wealthy factory owner in Salamanca at the turn of the 20th century would clearly have challenged many a resident with the design of his mansion, built on the walls of the old city, looking down over the park (and the Roman bridge, 12th century church and 5000 year old Varraco).

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 9.57.42 PM

This is what this jewel looks like today, virtually identical.


Would you have manned the barricades to prevent  this from being built?  Would you have found yourself saying derisively, “Art Nouveau, what garbage, it definitely doesn’t belong in my city!”

Today within the parameters of this ancient city, with its ancient university buildings and innumerable, it seems, churches, this building contains an amazing museum of Art Deco and Art Nouveau.  What a surprise?


The original door, gate and carvings in the stonework around the door.  The jewel is the central atrium.  I was not allowed to take photos;  what you see now is therefore illegal.


A true devotee of these styles could spend all day here;  I learned a lot, the collection is very comprehensive, worth the trip to Salamanca.

I have to add one more sight and insight into Salamanca, past, present and future.


The Spanish eat a lot of jamón, have for centuries, and will continue to eat this national dish, many of them, I am sure, at every meal.  These sandwiches literally dripping with slices of jamón ibérico possibly say it all.

16 – Gaudi – love him or leave him. November 15, 2012

I am happily back in Canada, but with a few more blogs still percolating in my old brain.

I wrote about my visit to Colonia Guell in an earlier post, an experimental factory town on the outskirts of Barcelona.  I wanted to see Gaudi’s church.  I found it fascinating, the visit one of the highlights of this time in Spain.

He also built a number of large private homes for wealthy merchant families, gentrification on a grand scale. Casa Batilo presides over one of Barcelona’s principal thoroughfares.  It was built at the beginning of the 20th century.

I have chosen this night photo;  it conveys well the sense of the fairytale that is my primary impression of this place, fun to visit, on everyone’s must list when visiting Barcelona “but now I want to return to my own home”. Six stories and in every room, in every component, in every detail   of the interior and exterior, the architect’s vision dominates absolutely.  I am left wondering whether the family had any input whatsoever.  Beautiful elements such as this mirrored cupboard door abound.  Every element, including the furniture, window, doors and even doorknobs, was designed by Gaudi.

Bringing light into every corner of the house was one of Gaudi’s obsessions.

And, he evidently did not like straight lines.  The pieces of glass would have each been designed by him, many are spirals and suns.  There are two openings within the house, shafts to bring light and air to all of the interior rooms on every floor. Gaudi was an engineering as well as an architectural marvel.

The unusual section below the windows would be for air circulation, another one of his obsessions. The roof is a whimsical world for chimneys covered with recycled pieces of ceramics and sculpted shapes.

A few final photos – it was very challenging with the crowds and with the sheer number of interesting elements and curiosities.  The front balconies and windows conjure up carnival time.

Oh, and next door is very interesting also, from the same time period, by a well-known contemporary, Puig i Cadafalch.

It is an absolute delight to wander the streets of this city to enjoy its architectural treasures and amazing diversity.  I see this delight in the visual everywhere in Spain. But architecture creates environments;  I am like you, I am clearly less comfortable in some of these created spaces. Could you live in the mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castle in Bavaria?  Could be fun to visit for a few hours?  I personally would not have felt at home, would not have felt any sense of sanctuary in Casa Batilo, from what I have seen of it.

I found a great website if you are interested in seeing more of it.


It has many photos organized under the different kinds of elements and materials.  There is also an album of historical photographs of what it would have been like a hundred years ago.  Enjoy.  If the link doesn’t work directly, consider simply typing in ‘’.  His other buildings are probably also featured.  I am going to check it out as soon as I publish this blog.

15 – some wonderful serendipity! November 7, 2012

I am staying in central Barcelona, my third time in a straightforward apartment hotel, nothing fancy, but very comfortable and surrounded in all directions by the balconies of Barcelona.  My first couple times, my room faced onto the street, which becomes quite quiet as the evening progresses.  No problems sleeping!  This photo from the intersection gives you a sense of the barrio.. My hotel is a narrow contemporary fill-in in mid-block, not worth a photo.  All intersections are on the diagonal.

The modern building on the right is an elementary school.  I noticed it first from the other side when I looked out my window to discover serendipitously this amazing ‘third space’.

The back of this very attractive school building with its playground.

I did a bit of research.  This area of Barcelona dates from after 1850.  Catalonia has had a long, difficult history with central Spain, it has been independent and powerful in its own right in the past, it was annexed by the monarchy in Madrid. After one of many rebellions in the early 18th century, the monarchy in Madrid enclosed the city in walls, not to protect the citizens but to keep them in, a larger version of the Jewish ghetto. Curious!  These walls were finally demolished in the 1850s, and the city leaders set out an ambitious plan to expand the city, with broad avenues, plazas, and blocks of housing. It is clearly a grid and my block is typical, something around 100 metres square.  I went for a walk this afternoon around this block.  On the southern flank beside the school is a modern affordable apartment building.

The eastern face is from the early days of the neighbourhood, complete with wonderful balconies and all the usual neighbourhood shops and cafes. The red and yellow flag, ubiquitous in Catalonia, asserts the independence of this region from Spain.

The other flank is also contemporary.  One final very short video taken in the after school period.  The safe place within becomes alive with kids, their grandparents chatting on benches among the trees.

I continue to be impressed by Spain and by its people.  Looking out my window allowed me to deepen this.  As I walk these blocks during future visits, I will be now imagining the interior spaces of the many other square 100 metres, looking for opportunities to have a peak.

14 – And, I have a cunning plan! October 31, 2012

Look at these photos of the balconies of Barcelona.  The city apologizes for its occasional cloudy periods.

The shop directly below is a restaurant – bar;  on the second floor is a hair salon.

Just imagine enjoying tea in this room, watching the world pass by.

Here is the complete building.  Neighbourhoods with similar balconies, some more basic, some amazingly more elaborate, spread in all directions.  These are located, on reasonably quiet streets, within a easy 15 minute amble to Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona’s central square and the gateway to Las Ramblas, their kilometre long pedestrian street.  All within easy reach of subway stops. Many look out over their own pedestrian ways.

The balcony and its neighbourhood, immediately at its feet –

One of Barcelona’s innumerable ‘third spaces’.  On a hot summer evening, it might keep one awake, but surely you would be contributing to the animated conversation, laughter and song.

Here’s the cunning plan!  You have probably seen it coming.  A bunch of us will throw a chunk of euros in the pot and buy one of these places, just above tree level, that we can share over the course of a very long year of warmth and sunshine.  Air Canada flies direct from May to October.  Remember the Mediterranean is a few subway stops away and there are a raft of Gaudi buildings within 10 minutes in whatever direction. Cafes, restaurants, tapas bars, chic shopping, Barca futbol, medieval architecture, the Picasso museum among so many museums (one for chocolate),  the list is endless.

And, here is my favourite balcony, so far, just above street level, but with similar ones reaching up three or four stories.

A bunch of us could come over together, spend some days wandering the streets trying to reach a compromise on the perfect one, hours negotiating in one of those bars or restaurants.

Wonderful to dream, the ideal location of most cunning plans!  Oh, by the way, I would be perfectly willing to sacrifice my time and be here regularly to take care of the place, act as tour guide extraordinaire and give introductory Spanish lessons.  One more!  De acuerdo!

And I know that I have only walked a small fraction of these streets.

Check out the comments and feel free to add your own, although at times I cannot figure out how to save all the comments.  I was not blogging in Valencia;  I was in the only hotel in Spain that insisted on charging a per diem for WiFi, for very slow WiFi, at about $8 a day.  I have praised this hotel in every other way on the reservation site but have said very simply that this situation is intolerable.  A farmhouse in the Pyrenees provided me with rapid, free WiFi (in Spanish, WeeFee).