MY TRIP TO SPAIN
` by Maureen Halsall
After three nights spent with family in London, England--where we dropped into the National Portrait Gallery on one day and the Victoria
and Albert Museum for "Inventing New Britain: the Victorian Vision"
the next day--on April 23, 2001 British Airways flew me to Madrid.
Unfortunately, my arrival at the Agumar Hotel on the Paseo Reina
Cristina was too late in the afternoon to permit any sightseeing prior to
the 6 p.m. welcome and information session organized by our Madrileno tour director. The Globus "Spanish Fiesta" tour group (assembled for
the first time that evening) proved to be dauntingly large: forty-six participants, all from the U.S. except for myself and a couple from
British Columbia. Luckily, however, everyone turned out to be pleasant and punctual, which meant a great deal on a tour scheduled to cover so much territory (approximately 4000 km.) in less than two weeks.
On Tuesday, April 24 the group set off in the care of a local guide at
8:30 a.m., so as to accomplish the Madrid orientation tour early before the shops opened and heavy traffic would begin to clog the streets.
We covered a good deal of the city, driving north up the Paseo del Prado,
Paseo Recoletos and Paseo de Castellon, then south via Calle Serrano
and Calle Alfonso. A foray to the west took us along Gran Via, where
we stopped briefly at the Plaza de Espana to photograph the Cervantes monument.
Then we headed south down the Calle de Bailen past the Royal Palace,
and finally east again via Calle Mayor and the elegant Calle de Alcala to
the Plaza de la Cibeles near the Prado. In passing, we saw many of the main squares, and the most significant buildings and public monuments,
including the Puerta del Sol: which is km. zero (the point from where all
distances in Spain are measured) and also one of the most familiar sights
to Spaniards--being the place where the traditional swallowing of twelve grapes for good fortune accompanies the twelve strokes of midnight heralding the New Year from the clock tower.
As early as 10 a.m., however, our bus tour was over and we were entering the Prado Museum, where we spent the rest of the morning under the guidance of a thin, intense elderly lady in viewing the Spanish holdings, with particular stress on the paintings of Velazquez and Goya.
Since the Prado was the last item on our city tour and the afternoon was shown as "at leisure" on our itinerary, when the rest of the group departed for the hotel at noon, I stayed behind to have a quick lunch in the cafeteria and continue viewing the galleries.
Then, at about 3 p.m., I crossed the road to visit the formerly private Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, now housed by the Spanish government in the neoclassical Palacio de Villehermosa. All the paintings and objects here were of very high quality, such as the well-known 15th-century portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio; and the smaller number
(a mere 800, as opposed to the over 3000--out of a total of more than 7000--usually on view at the Prado) made for a less indigestible banquet of art, with the mediaeval section furnishing particularly choice morsels.
Returning to the hotel by taxi in the early evening, I had a quiet dinner and was in bed well before midnight, gathering strength for the strenuous coach tour that lay ahead.
On Wednesday, April 25 we departed at 8:45 a.m. Heading north for the Basque Country, we drove through the often desolate plain of the central plateau of Castilla y Leon, stopping first at the ridge-top city of Segovia at the confluence of the Rio Erasma and the Rio Clamores.
A World Heritage city, Segovia boasts many monuments, some dating back over twenty centuries. No history buff omits paying respects in the Plaza de San Martin to the statue of Juan Bravo, who (1520-1521 A.D.) headed the local segment of the futile Castilian Guerra de las Comunidades (War of the Communities) against the new absolutist Hapsburg ruler Carlos I--in the course of which revolt the Romanesque cathedral was burnt to the ground.
Of course, the city's main tourist attractions are much more massive than this statue: the 16 km. Roman Aqueduct built in the 1st century A.D.;
the Disney-like Alcazar, a modern reconstruction of the Moorish al-qasr (castle) burned down in 1862; and the Late Gothic cathedral completed in 1577, built to replace the Romanesque cathedral destroyed by Juan Bravo's Communeros.
Continuing north and east, we visited Burgos, first established in the
9th century as a strategic fortress, later important as a way station on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and as a trading centre between the interior and the northern ports. Entering via the Puente de Santa Maria over the Rio Atlanzon and passing through the Arco de Santa Maria (once a gateway in the 14th century city walls) we paid a visit to the huge Gothic cathedral (1221-1261, with later 15th century towers). Beneath its star-vaulted central dome lies the tomb of El Cid; and on a bench in front of the north portal (La Puerta de la Coronaria) lolls the statue of a weary Santiago pilgrim.
We also visited the Plaza Mayor and strolled along the riverside Paseo del Espolon to the Puente de San Pablo, fronted by the Plaza del Cid. Here,
dominating the plaza, is a huge romanticized statue of the reputedly chivalrous, courteous and generous warrior of Burgos, El Cid Campeador ("The Lord Conqueror", whose birth name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar). When banished by Alfonso VI in 1081, El Cid actually served the Moorish king of Zaragoza; but later he conquered Valencia from the Moors and ruled it until his death in 1094--becoming in the process a prototype of the noble Castilian warrior of the Reconquest.
Finally we reached Vitoria, capital of the Basque Country. It was founded in the 6th century by the Visigoths and known by the Basque name of Gasteiz, until King Sancho the Wise of Navarre renamed it to commemorate his 1180 victory over the Moors. In 1813 an equally significant victory occurred here, when Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Welligton) won the decisive battle of the Peninsular War against the French under Joseph Bonaparte and Marshall Jourdan, for which he was awarded the title Duke of Vitoria. On the evening of our arrival at the Hotel Gasteiz, we walked about the Old City, beginning with and returning to the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca (the city's patron saint), where a large central monument commemorates Wellington's 1813 victory.
On Thursday, April 26 we boarded our bus at 8 a.m., but then took an unscheduled detour to see the Basque Parliament Buildings in the Parque de Florida and, south of the park, strolled along the Calle de Fray Francisco de Vitoria, with its elegant houses and (behind a wrought-iron fence) the ornate Museo de Bellas Artes.
Then we set off north for the Bay of Biscay and Bilbao, largest of the Basque cities and capital of Viscaya province. From its inception in
1300 A.D., this port city on the Ria Bilbao became a centre for trade and industry--by the mid-20th century boasting steel works, shipbuilding yards and chemical works. The slump in heavy industry in the last decades of the 20th century hit Bilbao hard; but, with the opening of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in 1997, tourism has pumped new life into the local economy.
We arrived at the riverside entrance to the Guggenheim in time to be the first group admitted, and toured the museum from 10 a.m. until noon.
There was remarkably little to see inside, except for a few large permanent exhibits (mazes, a white room designed to disorder the senses, massive steel sculptures that bore a striking resemblance to objets trouves from the Dofasco scrapyard, etc.) plus a temporary exhibit of the creations of Giorgio Armani. Hence, I spent the bulk of those two hours outside the building, looking up at the huge swirling structure (which supposedly was inspired by the hull of a boat and the anatomy of fish), admiring the visual effects created by Toronto-born Frank Gehry's titanium and glass shell, and observing how interestingly the building meshes with the surrounding environment of river, bridge and dock.
There was time for me to photograph the gigantic floral dog that guards the main (landside) entrance to the museum, as well as to catch the changing play of light on the titanium "fish scales" that form the building's outer skin.
From Bilbao we proceeded east along the coast of the Bay of Biscay to the seaside resort of San Sebastian, where we lunched in a tapas bar. Situated at the mouth of the Rio Urumea on the beautiful half-moon bay of La Concha, San Sebastian proved to be quite a pleasant town, where I wandered about for a couple of hours, looking at such highlights as the Plaza de la Constitucion and the churrigueresque facade of the Church of Santa Maria del Coro.
Then we drove south, arriving about 5 p.m. at Pamplona, the capital of Navarre (named by the Romans Pompaeio after Pompey the Great).
We walked from the Hotel Los Tres Reyes to the City Hall in the Plaza Consistorial, and then followed the route of the encierro ("the running of the bulls", made so famous to English-speakers by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises) along the Calle de los Mercaderes, into the Calle de la Eastafeta, and all the way up to the entrance to the bullring--which is presided over by a statue of Papa Hemingway himself in roll-necked fisherman's sweater. Then we returned to our bus by way of the main square, the Plaza Castilla (passing en route a stylized sculptural tribute to a local Olympic Marathon winner), and proceeded to our hotel for the night, the Iruna Park.
On Friday, April 27 we set off at 8:15 a.m., heading south; and by
10:45 a.m. we had reached Zaragoza, the regional capital of Aragon and an important crossroads on one of Spain's most vital waterways, the Rio Ebro--conduits from which supply much of the water for the arid lands further south. The city's name is a corruption of the name of the original Roman colony of Caesaraugusta, founded in 14 B.C.; and one does not have to look far in Zaragoza to find numerous Roman remains. Indeed, after the scheduled city tour was over and the group members were freed to find themselves some lunch, I made my way to the startlingly modern entrance to the now-subterranean Roman forum for a look at the remains of 2000-year-old shops, porticoes and cloaca (sewerage system).
First, however, we were taken by an excellent local guide around the various above-ground buildings, beginning with the Catedral de San Salvador (known as La Seo), built between the 12th and the 17th centuries in a mixture of styles from Romanesque to Baroque. The north-west facade is magnificent mudejar (Muslim-influenced) work, combining brick and colourful ceramics in geometric designs. An interesting feature of the recently reopened interior is the way in which the patterns of the Gothic vaulting are exactly repeated in the marble floor.
Next the guide led us to the Plaza del Pilar, an open space 500 metres long and lined by important buildings (such as La Lonja, a 16th century trading exchange with figured medallions on its exterior and, of course, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, the overwhelming edifice--designed in 1861 but in Baroque style--which gives the plaza its name).
The pillar referred to is one on which the Virgin is said to have descended from the heavens in a vision to encourage Saint James, leaving it behind when she disappeared. Standing inside the cathedral on the west side of the Capilla Santa, I watched pilgrim after pilgrim line up to kiss a tiny exposed portion of what they believed to be this same pillar.
At 1:30 p.m. we departed Zaragoza, driving east to the Mediterranean coast, our destination Barcelona, the capital of the region of Catalunya.
We finally reached the Hotel Ambassador, just off the Rambla dels Estudis, about 6 p.m., after battling our way through heavy rush-hour traffic. Barcelona probably was founded by the Carthaginians in about 230 B.C. and took its name from Hannibal's father Hamilcar Barca.
Today it is Spain's richest, most cosmopolitan city, with a population of 1.5 million.
On Saturday, April 28 we set off at 8:30 a.m. on an extensive city tour with a local guide. We traversed the various distinctive segments of La Rambla, which takes its name from the seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran here: a broad pedestrian boulevard lined with cafes and restaurants and flanked by narrow traffic lanes, ending at the tall Columbus monument by the harbour. There at Port Vell we saw the enormous amount of imagination and labour that have been expended since the 1980's in transforming the old port into an exciting "people place", complete with what is claimed to be Europe's largest aquarium.
Of course, we also visited the Gothic Cathedral (whose crypt contains the tomb of the city's patron saint Eulalia) and were duly hissed at by the geese that guard the palm-treed cloister.
Naturally, we also drove up to see the main group of 1992 Olympic sites on Montjuic and enjoy the view from there down onto the city centre, where we could discern the taller structures, including the Columbus monument by the harbour and in the distance the towers both of the Cathedral and of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.
The recurring theme of our tour, however, was Modernist architecture, which in many ways has come to symbolize the liveliness, the sense of style, the sheer verve that is Barcelona. In particular we focussed on the buildings of Antoni Gaudi--from his houses in L'Eixample (the middle-class Enlargement of Barcelona beyond the old city walls in the latter 19th century) to his still-unfinished masterpiece, the fantastical Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, on which Gaudi worked from 1884 until he was run over by a tram in 1926.
On Sunday, April 29 at 8:45 a.m. we departed Barcelona, heading south down the Mediterranean coast in the midst of a cold drizzle, making for Valencia, which was founded by the Romans on the banks of the Rio Turia in 138 B.C. Arriving at the Astoria Palace Hotel just before 2 p.m., we set off on a brisk two-hour city tour at 4 p.m. This included a visit to the Cathedral (a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque) plus a walking circuit of the surrounding streets that took us under the third- storey bridge to the Generalitat (the seat of regional government) and even afforded us a glimpse of the nearby Roman ruins at L'Almoina (the heart of Roman Valentia).
From the bus window we saw the twin-towered 14th and 15th century gates of the city walls (pocked by the scars inflicted by Napoleonic cannonballs), and also the famous Bull Ring, as well as the stunning City of Arts and Sciences (Europe's newest cultural and scientific complex).
One unique highlight of the city tour was a visit to the Museo Artista Fallero, where we were shown the techniques used to fabricate the over 350 huge sculptures of papier-mache on wood, built annually by teams of local artists for display and subsequent incineration in the various city squares during the March festival of Las Fallas de San Jose (Saint Joseph, the world's second most famous carpenter).
On Monday, April 30 we departed Valencia at 8 a.m., heading south down the Mediterranean coast as far as Alicante, then east through the Mora Pass to Granada. En route we stopped at the village of Purullena to visit one of the modern cave-dwellings hollowed out of tufa stone: a three-bedroom home with every convenience but windows, which were impossible to construct except in the very front rooms.
After the second longest drive of our tour (550 km or 344 miles), we reached the Hotel Carmen in Granada in bright sunlight about 5:30 p.m. and were told that we had been granted the rare mercy of an early dinner --at 7:30 rather than the more normal 9 p.m. Before dinner, I climbed up to the penthouse roof to photograph the surrounding city, nestled in the foothills of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
On Tuesday, May 1 we awoke to a cold, overcast day, departing at 8:30 a.m. for a two and a half hour tour of the Alhambra and the Water Gardens of the Generalife. What can one say that has not already been said often and better about the glories of the Alhambra (al-qala'at al-hamra, or "red castle")? It was begun in the 9th century as a Moorish fortress, the Alcazaba, which later was turned into a fortress-palace by the 13th century ruler Al Ahamar.
Then, in the 14th century the Nasrids Yousouf I and Mohammed V built the famous Palacio Nazaries: that jewel of Andalusian architecture, which is the subject of so many familiar drawings, paintings and photographs.
From the public rooms and patios of the Mexuar (used for judicial and bureaucratic purposes),
to the splendors of the Serallo or official residence of the emir or sultan (centred on the Patio of the Myrtles and including the Hall of the Ambassadors, where Christian emissaries and other dignitaries would be received and entertained),
to the exquisite cloistered world of the Heren or harem (centred on the columned Patio of the Lions and including the "stalactite"-ceilinged Hall of the Two Sisters and the intricately wrought Daraxa or sultana's quarters),
the Nasrid Palace furnishes an unforgettable glimpse of the sophistication and luxury that was Granada (Arabic Karnattah) for almost eight centuries, from 711 A.D. until Los Reyes Catolicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, entered the city in 1492, bringing the Inquisition in their wake.
In the 16th century, the first Hapsburg ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos I, destroyed a wing of the Palacio Nazaries to build his own huge square Renaissance palace, graced with an astonishing circular two-tiered courtyard with 32 columns (now, according to our guide, the site of concerts by prestigious opera stars).
After a welcome cup of hot chocolate to warm us, we left the Alhambra and walked to the northeast over a separating gully to the hillside where the emirs found a pleasant retreat during the hot months in their Summer Palace--amidst the terraces, patios, fountains, hedges, trees and flowers of the Generalife (Garden of the Architect). Even with an overcast sky and a bitter cold wind blowing, one could see the attraction of these exquisite water gardens.