Archive for the 'Spain' Category

September 2nd 2008
Hello Dali

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Salvador Dali (1904-89), born in the small Spanish town of Figueres just a few kilometers south of the French border, is regarded by many to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. He is also one of our personal favorites. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Dali created the Teatre-Museu Dali in Figueres, a culmination of his life’s work and the single greatest surrealist piece of art in the world. We decided to use our last day in Spain to make the pilgrimage, a two-hour train ride north from Barcelona.

The Figueres’ former municipal theater, burned and destroyed during the Spanish civil war, was personally converted by Dali to create the museum. A brochure that we picked up at the museum entrance suggested that “the Dali Theatre-Museum should be seen as a whole, for Dali conceived and designed everything in it with the aim of offering the visitor a veritable aesthetic experience, and the opportunity of entering the artist’s unique, fascinating world.” And what an amazing world it was, filled with Dali’s psychedelic and spectral images! Tina is unshakably convinced that there must have been some fantastic hallucinogens in Gaudi and Dali’s time. After two hours of wandering around the multilevel amphitheatre we were both overwhelmed by the artist’s unique and varied creations – paintings, drawings, sculptures, gold, jewels, and installations. Dali was certainly not confined to the medium of painting for which he is most famous. He liked to paint his wife, Gala. He liked to create things that move. Filled with cartoon-like sketches, enormous wall-covering paintings, surrealistic oil paintings, doorways morphed into giant faces, and a chaotic array of sculptures and installations, the museum left us speechless. It was easily one of our favorite museums in the world.

Our tickets granted us entry to another of Dali’s museums nearby, the Dali Joies (Dali Jewels). In the 1940’s, Dali was commissioned to design a collection of jewelry. The result was an eclectic display of beautiful bejeweled anthropomorphic creations including The Eye of Time, an eye-shaped mosaic of platinum, ruby and diamonds and The Royal Heart, a solid gold heart with an inset ruby-encrusted, mechanized heart that appeared to beat. Dali summarizes his collection best. “The jeweled pieces – ornaments, medals, crosses, objets d’art – you find are not conceived to rest soullessly in steel vaults. They were created to please the eye, uplift the spirit, stir the imagination, express convictions. Without an audience, without the presence of spectators, these jewels would not fulfill the function for which they came into being. The viewer, then, is the ultimate artist. His sight, heart, mind – fusing with and grasping with greater or lesser understanding the intent of the creator – gives them life.”

A short train ride south from Figueres is the picturesque town of Girona, idyllically perched on a riverbank with colorfully-painted houses and a rustic medieval town center. We stopped there on our way back to Barcelona and sat for a late lunch at one of the outdoor cafés. We wandered through the narrow winding streets, visiting the town’s cathedral, stopping for photos and gelato. Girona is not a major tourist destination, overflowing with historical sights, but rather a charming little town straddling a lazy river. We found its tranquil streets a refreshing change from the frenetic pace of Barcelona and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the Dali museum.

And so our days in Spain have come to an end. We have truly enjoyed the sangria, the paella and gelato; the vibrant colors, the music and the laid back attitudes of the Spanish people. Life in Spain seems refreshingly immune to the frenetic pace of much of the Western world. Barcelona, jewel of the Mediterranean, is a conglomeration of Spain’s best attributes – stunning architecture, a relaxed café culture, world class museums, historic medieval neighborhoods, and one of the most enjoyable beaches we’ve ever experienced. Lladro. Picasso. Dali. Gaudi. Spain makes the world beautiful.

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September 1st 2008
So Gaudi

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Never again will we underestimate the contributions of the Spanish to the overall beauty of the world…and I’m not just talking about the dark hair, Mediterranean skin and heaving cleavage. We have waded into the Barcelona art scene, a playground of Picasso and Modernista architect, Antoni Gaudi. With six nights to play, we felt sure that we could visit Barcelona’s most impressive sights with plenty of time leftover for sangria and the beach. We were mostly right.

We arrived in the late afternoon and went directly to La Rambla, a beautiful tree-lined pedestrian walkway lined with cafés and restaurants. Barcelona’s most famous street was thronged with locals and tourists alike, strolling the lane and absorbing the vibrant activity. Interspersed with the fresh flower stalls, souvenir stands, small pet shops and street artists, costumed street performers drew the biggest crowds. Nowhere have we seen more elaborate costumes outside a theatre than we have on La Rambla. The street was full of life and we would stroll it nearly every day during our stay.

The next day, we began by walking through the tangled medieval stone alleys of Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, walking through its magnificent Gothic cathedral and then, the highlight of our day – the Picasso Museum. Barcelona’s most visited museum is housed in five medieval stone mansions. The corridors are dim and cavernous while the galleries are bright and airy to showcase the work. The museum exhibits Picasso’s earliest works, including oil paintings on postcard-size pieces of wood, sketches, sculptures, many works from his famous Blue Period and a tireless study of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. The museum was fascinating because it displayed many works from Picasso’s earlier, more traditional style of painting and followed his transition to the Cubism for which he is most famous.

The artist who has left by far the most stunning and visible fingerprint on Barcelona is Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). He was a pioneering architect of the Modernista period in Spain, during which innovative artists showcased bold, modern designs in architecture as symbols of the rising affluence of the Spanish bourgeois.

We devoted an entire day to admiring Gaudi’s brilliant work, beginning with a visit to Park Guell. The project began in 1900, on a piece of prime real estate overlooking the sea, as a housing development for the wealthy but ended fourteen years later as a commercial failure. The city later purchased the incomplete development and turned it into a public park. From the metro stop, a series of escalators carried excitable tourists up the side of a steep hill. Once inside the park, landscaped gravel walking trails wound around the hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. The trails eventually led to the remnants of Gaudi’s creations for the original housing development project: two “gingerbread” gatehouses, a colorful, curvy plaza and 3km of roads, walks and steps. The park was a beautiful place for a picnic and many people had copped a squat in the pillared pavilion at the entry while musicians played for tips. The plaza was a large open area surrounded by a squiggly mosaic bench and it was there that I really began to visualize the potential of the original project. It would have been like living in a fun house with pretty touches everywhere to make people smile. That was Gaudi’s way.

After the park, we moved on to another one of Gaudi’s creations – La Pedrera – an apartment building commissioned by a well-to-do couple. “La Pedrera”, meaning stone quarry, was a nickname given to the building because it looks like it is carved out of stone. The completed building consists of two blocks of apartments, each with its own interior courtyard, and with one continuous façade that curves around a corner lot. An apartment on the fourth floor was decorated as it would have been in the early 1900’s, when it was inhabited by the Barcelona bourgeois. The floor plan encircled a large interior courtyard, filling the apartment with light. From the swirling ceilings and parquet floors to the moulding, door knobs and other ornamental embellishments, every detail of the interior has Gaudi’s personal touch.

Just a few blocks down the road, Casa Batllo was my favorite Gaudi masterpiece. It was a remodel of an existing house, commissioned by the Batllo family, and created by Gaudi with an “under the sea” theme. The façade is a vision of waves in blue, mauve and green tile, leading up to an uneven blue-tiled roof. Inside, everything waves and swirls – hardly a single straight line can be found – and the rooms are full of color and light. The rooftop terrace, which overlooks pretty Passeig de Gracia, is a surprising delight with mosaic chimney sculptures, multiple levels, and a small cavernous room with a water feature that makes an echoing sound of rain. Every aspect of Casa Batllo is beautiful and functional and brilliant. It is a dream house!

Exhausted but still trudging along, we made our way to Gaudi’s most famous creation and Barcelona’s most famous work-in-progress: La Sagrada Familia. Begun in 1882, the church was the project to which Gaudi dedicated the latter part of his life and was left incomplete when Gaudi died in 1926. It is an awe-inspiring synergy of a traditional Gothic design and Gaudi’s shocking Modernista flair. Stunning sculptured façades seem to jump off the church and the narrow pointed towers are breathtaking to behold. La Sagrada Familia looks more like a fairy tale castle than a church. Work continues slowly, according to Gaudi’s original designs. The completed structure will be a glorious monument to an artist who left an unforgettable mark on Barcelona. The photos simply do not do it justice. It is a church unlike any the world has ever seen.

Antoni Gaudi has been the highlight of our visit to Barcelona. His masterworks light up the city. They make people point and smile. He was unconventional and inventive. His sense of humor and zest for life are manifest in the many works he has left for the world to enjoy.

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August 31st 2008
La Tomatina

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One hundred fifteen thousand kilos of tomatoes dumped into a small town square full of 40,000 drunk people. One hour of mayhem. If I stopped there, you could probably imagine the rest. The actual experience of La Tomatina – the world’s biggest tomato fight – was beyond the scope of my own imagination. So I’ll start from the beginning…

We learned of La Tomatina from our dear friend, Andrew, as the three of us traveled through Egypt almost one year ago. It sounded so crazy that we decided to tailor our Europe itinerary to fit it in. In the early part of our trip, we tirelessly pursued adventure activities – rafting the mighty Zambezi, cage diving with Great White sharks, ambitious hikes, safaris, swimming with dolphins, sailing, kayaking, and scuba diving around the world, just to name a few – but as we returned to Europe to begin our “home stretch”, our mindset had changed. We looked forward to coasting through the comfortable, easy travel of Europe. As the day loomed near, we began to think about the reality of La Tomatina – 40,000 intoxicated twentysomethings in a confined space – and a wave of dread came over us. We tried to disguise it with forced enthusiasm, which appeared as transparent as it was. We know each other too well. But La Tomatina had been booked months in advance so we were going.

We checked into our three-star hotel in Valencia – the cheapest room we could find during La Tomatina – joking that it was three more stars than we usually get. The tomato fight takes place in Buñol, a town of about 8,000 people, 40 kms away, but Buñol has little in the way of accommodation so everyone stays in Valencia and trains in for the event, with the exception of those who drink all night in Buñol the night before and sleep on the street. That’s not really our style.

We rose early on fight day and took the metro to the train station. The metro was already full of raucous revelers, dressed in their worst for the occasion, and seemingly already three sheets to the wind. We followed this same group from the metro to the train station and, with some crafty maneuvering on Aaron’s part, managed to circumvent the queue and get on the first train.

When the train arrived in Buñol, we were among the first wave of revelers to descend upon the town amid the drunken ovation from the enthusiastic campers. The locals were ready for us with the first of many refreshment tents set up just outside the train station. Within ten minutes of our arrival in Buñol, we each had a monster cup of sangria in our hands. What better way is there to truly enjoy a half day among 40,000 drunken college kids than by channeling your twenty-year-old self and drinking sangria at 8am? We couldn’t think of one.

From the station, we had to walk through the town into the old town square, where the festivities would take place. With sloshing sangria we followed the masses downhill through the streets. Many locals had set up beer tents, snack stands with sausages, sandwiches and paella; secure storage facilities, stands selling t-shirts, disposable waterproof cameras and cheap protective eyewear. We had made up sandwiches that morning and had our scuba masks at the ready. We were fully equipped and wanted a prime spot right in the middle of the action. When we reached the square, it was already crowded but still navigable. We planted ourselves in the center and took in the hysteria in our midst. The surrounding buildings were draped with plastic tarps. Groups of people had coordinated costumes: guys in matching flamenco aprons, girls in swim caps and fluorescent tutus, a lot of white shirts and swimwear. The crowd had a rowdy, good-spirited energy but a lot of people were already wasted with two hours still to go before tomato time.

The ham pole went up around nine. An integral part of the annual tomato fight, a telephone pole with a ham leg tied to the top is fastened into the ground. The pole is slathered from top to bottom with a thick layer of what looked like animal lard but smelled more like soap. Per tradition, the crowd must climb the pole and cut down the ham before the tomato fight can begin. With two hours and a little coordination, that should be no problem, I thought to myself. Wrong!

What ensued over the next two hours was utter chaos, a comedy of blunders, as drunken imbeciles climbed all over each other in pursuit not of the ham but of their own two seconds of glory, of being photographed on the pole before their chauvinistic idiocy brought the pile to the ground. For the first hour, it was hilarious, then gradually digressed to merely funny, then mildly entertaining, then painful to watch. The redeeming quality of the ham pole debacle was a guy in a fuzzy yellow chicken suit who repeatedly took to the pole while the riled crowd chanted, “Chicken! Chicken!” Unfortunately, the chicken was way too drunk to make any real progress. By eleven o’clock, the ham still hung mockingly from atop the pole but the tomatoes came anyway.

The first of five dump trucks rolled slowly into the tiny square as the crowd, roaring with excitement, diverged toward the outer walls to make way. Rowdy locals in the back of the trucks pelted the crowd with tomatoes before the truck dumped its load of bright red ammunition into the square. Bodies scrambled into the truck’s wake and fired tomatoes in all directions. Five minutes later came truck number two, followed shortly thereafter by a third. There were a lot of tomatoes but also a lot of bodies – you had to scavenge for fallen fruit. After the arrival of the fourth truck, however, it was sheer pandemonium! Aaron and I had lost each other in the madness and I was on my own amid drunken flailing limbs in a sea of marinara. There were no friends, no enemies; it was every man for himself and everyone was drenching everyone else with red slop. At one point, I looked down and realized that I couldn’t see my feet – the sauce was ankle deep! By this time, there was hardly a whole tomato to be found. People were scooping up handfuls of sauce and flinging it in every direction. Some sat down in the red sea of sauce, writhing happily while the crowd collectively showered them. Others engaged in drunken group wrestling matches. Countless t-shirts, soaked in salsa, flew through the air. Sauce rained down.

Thankfully, Aaron and I had established a rendezvous point and found each other again shortly before the bell rang to announce the end of the tomato fight. We were exhilarated, exhausted, and covered in tomato from head to toe. It was caked in my hair, stuck to our clothes, and coming out of our ears. Luckily, our scuba masks had worked perfectly, leaving our eyes the only body part immune from the mess. As the crowd shuffled slowly back uphill toward the train station, the sun which had remained sympathetically hidden behind the clouds all morning, made its glorious entrance and I began to feel the acidity of the tomatoes on my skin. Many good-spirited locals sprayed hoses into the crowd but there were so many people vying for the same sprinkles. We arrived at the train station to find long lines everywhere…long lines for the now disgustingly vile portable toilets, long lines for the makeshift showers, and long lines for the trains. We paid our dues in all three lines over a span of two hours before finally boarding the train back to Valencia.

La Tomatina was an epic adventure. We’d had a ball and were leaving virtually unscathed, which is exactly what I’d prayed for. In an alcohol-fueled melee like that, anything can happen. The mob mentality is always volatile and innocent bystanders can easily become casualties. Our only casualty was the loss of Aaron’s wedding ring, which we realized had slipped off in the showers at the end. A small price to pay for a truly unforgettable experience.


August 28th 2008
The Alhambra

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Granada is one of Spain’s hippest cities, home to 60,000 college students, countless cervecerias (beer bars) serving free tapas, corner kebab stands and heladerias (ice cream shops). But the reason that millions of tourists flock here every year is to visit the Alhambra, a hilltop fortress-palace overlooking the city. The Alhambra, meaning “red castle”, is another – many would say the finest – example of a structure, marked by the handprints of alternating Muslim and Christian rulers. Stretched atop a hill, it began as a fortress in the 9th century and was converted by Nasrid emirs in the 13th and 14th centuries into a palace complex with an adjacent medina. When the Christians returned to power in the 15th century, the Alhambra’s mosque was replaced with a church and a huge Renaissance palace was subsequently added. The main attraction of the Alhambra is the Palacio Nazaries, built by Mohammed V in the 14th century. Aaron’s meticulous due diligence told us that six thousand visitors a day traipse through the Alhambra but only 2,000 tickets are sold at the door. To ensure admission, you must purchase tickets online for a specific time slot for the Palacio Nazaries and be there on time or be declined entry. After a kilometer walk uphill to the entrance, we arrived sweaty and ready for our 8:30am slot and were among the first to enter.

The palace was exquisite. The rooms were elaborately decorated with mosaic tilework, carved wooden ceilings, molded stucco walls with intricate lace patterns, and traditional Arabic calligraphy. There were picturesque courtyards with manicured gardens, reflecting pools and a labyrinth of covered corridors connecting it all. The design and décor of the Palacio Nazaries was similar to the other medersas and Arab-Islamic palaces that we’ve seen in Morocco and southern Spain but we were awed by it nonetheless. The sheer magnitude of the Alhambra was impressive. The Generalife, or architect’s garden, was a pristinely manicured labyrinth of hedged corridors, arbors, cypress trees, and flowers of every imaginable color. Its magic compelled even the most macho of men to pose giddily for photos among its storybook backdrops.

After the Alhambra, we spent our remaining days in Granada eating gelato, drinking sangria, and fitting in some of the city’s other sights in between. As a side note, Tina got her first-ever stye in her left eye, which did not inhibit our activities but she was nonetheless perturbed about not being able to wear makeup for the next couple of weeks. Thankfully, her husband, a former pusher of eye drops, easily diagnosed the problem and had a bottle of antibiotic drops in the first-aid kit. She is still annoyed about the makeup thing but is on the road to recovery.

The Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter sprawling up a hill facing the Alhambra, afforded the best views of the fortress-palace. The Albayzin was a maze of narrow alleys meandering within the old stone ramparts. The neighborhood, though largely residential, had lovely plazas with outdoor cafes, small shops selling souvenirs and Moroccan imports, and remnants of mosques-turned-churches. The five kilometer walking tour, winding through zigzagging streets, up and down the hillside, was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and work off some of that gelato.

Granada was our last stop in Andalucía, the most quintessentially Spanish region of Spain. We have loved our relaxed travel pace of late. The Alhambra is the city’s star attraction and it was magnificent but, after the exhilarating intensity of that experience, we enjoyed melting into the fold of daily life in laid back Granada for a few relaxing days.


August 25th 2008
Jesus Christ Superstar of the Mezquita

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We arrived in Cordoba in mid-morning with a single beautiful day to explore. We settled into our hostel and set out at once for the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, which we were delighted to discover was free on Fridays. The artist Torres (1873-1930) was a respected local painter who specialized in the sensual portraits of Cordoban dames. The small museum housed in a former hospital, exhibited two floors of what could have been Torres’ life’s work.

The mostly female subjects of the paintings all seemed to be bathed in a soft ethereal glow, as if to accentuate both their eroticism and innocence. The artist portrayed everything that is passionate, delicate, and demure about women. He painted their souls onto their faces. I was deeply moved by Torres’ work – I have always been a fan of the portrait – and I was almost saddened when we had seen them all. I wanted more but such is the sentiment regarding all of the brilliant artists of our world. A lifetime is never long enough.

After a casual lunch at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafés, we made our way to Cordoba’s most impressive sight – the Mezquita, meaning mosque in Spanish. The Mezquita is also commonly referred to as the Cathedral of Cordoba, which seems contradictory until the story of its current incarnation unfolds.

Following the Islamic invasion of Cordoba, the ruling Muslims began construction of the Mezquita in 785 on the site of a razed 6th century Christian church, which had been the center of the community. Some of the church’s columns and materials were incorporated into the new structure. The mosque was enlarged and handsomely embellished in the ninth and tenth centuries, making it one of the world’s biggest and most architecturally stunning mosques. The prayer hall incorporated 1293 columns supporting the Mezquita’s most esthetically striking feature – seemingly endless rows of two tiered red and white striped arches. The completed mosque was an ostentatious display of power, a work of Islamic architecture to be used as a model of reference.

In 1236, Cordoba fell back into the hands of Christians and the Mezquita’s transformation began. Rather than razing the magnificent architectural treasure or adding on to its exterior, the ruling Christians built a cathedral right in the center of the mosque and incorporated as much Christian iconography and artwork into the existing interior as could ever be thought possible. The result is either a gaudy, incoherent contradiction or a beautiful idea of Muslim and Christian faiths converging into a glorious house of God. I can’t decide.

Stepping into the Mezquita for the first time was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping experience. The red and white striped arches were the focal point and seemed oddly festive. The arches continued on further than the eye could see, catching rays of sunlight from the high windows and creating a kaleidoscope effect that was magical to behold. Everyone who walked inside stopped to marvel at them with the same expression of awe.

We walked slowly around the inner perimeter, pausing to admire each of the chapels, with their artifacts and furnishings. The cathedral in the center of the Mezquita, added by the Christian reconquerors, consisted of a main chapel, transept and choir. It was small in comparison to the size of the original mosque. Throughout the Mezquita, Christian embellishments abounded. Biblical-themed sculpture was incorporated into some of the mosque’s beautiful arches. A crucified Christ adorned a wall covered in a masterpiece of Islamic stonework. Saints were sculptured into the molding of the vaulted ceilings and into the tops of the marble columns. Icons graced the walls facing stunning mosaic archways with the traditional Islamic keyhole design. The thought that kept echoing through my mind as we explored the various sections of the Mezquita was that, despite the innumerable Christian “reforms”, it was still a mosque.

Muslims consider iconography to be idolatrous. The symbols used in the decoration of their mosques are lotus flowers (representing purity), stars and Arabic calligraphy, and there is always water within or near a mosque for the ablutions. Christians adore their paintings and sculptures and their treasuries of majestic gold, silver and bejeweled objects. Mosques are generally filled with light from big, arched doorways or open ceilings while any natural light in a Christian church is usually filtered through deep-hued stained glass, accented by dim chandeliers and the flicker of candlelight. The nineteen doors that once filled the Mezquita with light now remain closed. The two styles so defiantly contrasted one another that slapping one style on top of the other created a vulgar and gaudy, though fascinating, effect. Jesus Christ, Superstar of the Mosque. Thankfully, much of the dazzling work of the Mezquita’s original artisans remained untouched by the transformation and the aura of the Mezquita, in its unblemished form, predominates.

Our brief visit to Cordoba was full of interesting contradictions: eroticism and innocence; destruction in the name of God; Muslim and Christian perspectives on the architectural and artistic glorification of God, or Allah as the case may be. We had a lot to contemplate. We left Cordoba with one certainty however: the Mezquita was AMAZING! After a year of traveling the world and visiting many of its most spectacular natural and manmade wonders, we find that it takes a lot to impress us these days. The Mezquita was a simultaneous glimpse into two worlds; an experience that left us in a breathless, awed, controversial state of wonderment.


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