Sevilla and its Cathedral

In the 1500’s Sevilla was a gateway to the world with its river harbor; Magellan sailed from here. In the 1600’s Sevilla was Spain’s largest and richest city. Today it is a tourist mecca, famous for it’s cathedral and Alcazar (palace),and equally for its “soul”: the flamenco dance, bar life, and maze-like Jewish quarter.

Any picture of Sevilla should start with a view of the Giralda tower, originally a minaret, built in the late 1100’s and now the bell tower for the Santa Maria Cathedral of Sevilla. Actually, the tower couldn’t be supported by the Moorish brick, so the Moors used Roman stone for the base. And the Catholics added the top bell tower. Note contrasting styles!

The cathedral itself is fascinating.  Some walls and doors still remain from the original mosque, but not much.  The contrast between the old mosque and “new” church is shown in the pictures below (taken from postcards, the mosque an artist’s conception).

Note the simplicity of the mosque, and its relatively modest human scale; vs the much more vertical, elaborate and complex cathedral.  One can see that complexity viewed from above;  from the outside, the cathedral is so large I found it impossible to SantaMaria1comprehend its overall structure.  It is the 3rd largest church in Europe, and the largest Gothic church.

Note from the postcard pictures that the inner courtyard of the mosque was preserved – as was the entrance gate, a gorgeous bronze-coated door saved from the mosque (early 1200’s) as shown below.

Inside, the cathedral is magnificently (and confusingly) large.  It goes forever, but there are large structures inside – a choir, a high alter (the largest ever made) –  that subdivide the space and work against awe. As seen below, it’s impressive and intriguing, but not elegant.

The cathedral has some nice stained glass.

Columbus tomb, bronzeOh, and by the way, Columbus’s tomb is here.  Impressively so.  The tomb is carried by 4 Spanish kings, life-size,  and is made of gorgeous bronze.  It is spectacular.




Mary, Rescued FrescoSpectacular in a different way is an incredibly beautiful fresco, painted into a prayer niche of the mosque after the Christian conquest in 1248 (the mosque was used as a church until they tore it down to build the cathedral).  The builders were captivated and saved the fresco for us to enjoy.  Artist unknown.





But where the cathedral shines is its riches.  Oh yeah!  Let’s forget the incredible marble and carved choir and gold gilding (below)

and hundreds of body parts common to many of these churches.  We’re talking  major flaunt here.  How about a Goya painting?  Or among the many many many gold and silver crosses and boxes, this crown?  It has 11,000 precious stones and the world’s largest pearl (angel’s silver torso, right).


The other major attraction in Sevilla is the Alcazar.  Next post!

Malaga, Costa del Sol

Malaga overview (from the Alcazaba)Málaga is a Mediterranean port city with about 3,000 years of history, starting with the  Phoenicians in BC 800.  Followed by the Carthaginians, followed by the Romans, followed by the Moors, and followed by the Christians.  As you might imagine, there is history to see here; maybe not grand sights – Málaga is not on the tourist trail (not even mentioned in Rick Steve’s travel book) – but it does have some impressive sights, made even more enjoyable because it isn’t on the tourist trail (it’s real), and there are no crowds to fight.

Before I show you around Málaga, let me entertain you with our first adventure.  Málaga is also where the planes land if you’re going to the Costa del Sol, which is why we’re here – we’ve just arrived from the US, it’s the late afternoon, and we’re slightly stressed out.  Stressed not only from lack of sleep, but just now concerned about our inexpensive hotel.  The streets are narrow in Málaga, and many streets can not accommodate cars – like, as we discover, our hotel street.  The taxi stops in front of an intersecting alley, and informs us the hotel entrance opens into it – somewhere.  It’s far enough up that we can’t see it.  Oh yeah?  Kind of an inauspicious start.  Whatcha bet there’s no doorman either.  We nervously shoulder our backpacks – all our belongs in this world – and start up this looong and narrow, darkish, not-quite deserted alley.  Ginger is a little nervous.  Glad it’s still daylight.

Well, the room is not so bad.  It’s clean and simple, and will do fine while we crash.  First things first, I try to plug the computer into the Spanish outlet, and discovered that the really cool TUMI multi-prong all-of-Europe converter I bought is not grounded – meaning the converter has only two holes to plug a device into, and the Apple computer cord is three prong.  Yeah, that’s a problem; why didn’t I notice that before?  Stores are open until 9pm, so I go out to find some sort of converter, and to buy a phone for me and a SIM card for Ginger’s iPhone.  Well, no luck with a converter, but a phone store said to come back the next day and all will be good.  I think.  Did I say that no one speaks English in the stores, and I learned my Spanish from a book?

The next morning before check-out I hot-foot it to the phone store.  The salesman opens Ginger’s iPhone to put in the SIM card, announces that it takes a “nano-SIM”, and that all of Spain does not have this for prepaid cards.  Only for phones with contracts.  (This info, of course, is in Spanish).  OK, so I’ll buy a damn contract for a year.  Problem solved.  No, the contract can only be set up with a bank account where the money will be automatically withdrawn.  Jeesh!  So I’ll open a damn bank account and put in enough money for the contract.  So I find a bank, which also doesn’t speak English.  I learn I can’t open an account because I need an address in Spain to do this.  So now I have to buy a house to get a SIM card!!  Clearly this is spinning out of control and we need to find an Apple store.  The hotel helps us, and we get the address – across town, of course.  Well, surprise on surprise!  The address is a department store!  A big one, too.  After wandering for awhile we find Apple – just an open floor space in the store – operated by a single person!  Apple?  There are two people ahead of us, and after waiting for an hour we successfully get a cord for the computer and, nearby, a phone store with the right nanocard (there is a company in Spain that does this).  Good to go!

In spite of the bumpy start, Málaga looked interesting; and so after a week in Costa del Sol we returned to Málaga for a few days.  It’s delightful!  It has a Roman amphitheater, a Moorish palace/fortress Alcazaba, a castle, a cathedral, and it’s where Pablo Picasso was born, with a museum devoted to his work (he personally donated much of the art).

The marble streets and delightful atmosphere of MalagaOkay, finally I’m going to show you around Málaga!  Although it’s a city with a population north of half a million, at least in the downtown historical area it has all the feel of a much smaller place.  Let me start by showing you, on the left, a typical view of one of Málaga’s streets.  We’re just north of the central business district.  Charming, yes?  It’s not quite streets of gold, but did you notice that the street/sidewalk (too narrow for a car) is all marble?  Beautiful marble?  As are most of the streets/sidewalks of downtown.  We’re impressed!  For us, it’s the defining characteristic of this interesting city.

Want to be more impressed?  Let me show you the downtown main shopping street, daytime and nighttime.

It’s so spectacular, it looks staged, doesn’t it?  Airbrushed?  Nope.  I took those pictures.  View from our hotel windowThat’s the way it looks.  Our hotel that we’re splurging on, by the way, is just off-camera to the right of that shopping street above.   The picture to the left is a view of the adjacent small plaza from our bedroom window.  And yes, the streets – and plazas – are all marble!

The city has a lot of good, inexpensive restaurants like the one in the first picture below; their “berenjena con miel” (eggplant with honey) is by itself worth the trip to Málaga.  There is also a very entertaining street scene; the guy suspended in the air had me quite befuddled for awhile!

Street artThe city also has a whimsical side, such as this art just hanging between buildings for no apparent reason.

I mentioned the Picasso museum, which was quite enjoyable, but taking photos was not permitted.  Most of the art was his early work, when he actually drew things that looked like what they really look like.  He was indeed a talented artist in the conventional sense; one does not always know that from his famous ground-breaking art.

I mentioned the Phoenicians earlier.  When the city digs a foundation for new buildings, they sometimes encounter old Phoenician walls and such, which are preserved; examples are shown below, discovered when the city was building the Picasso museum.

After the Phoenicians came the conquering Romans, who built an impressive amphitheater into the hillside.  It was built about AD 0, during emperor Augustus’ rule

right after the death of Julius Caesar.  The fortress wall above the amphitheater in the left picture above belongs to the Moorish Alcazaba – we’ll get to that.  The foreground in the right picture shows what remains of the amphitheater’s stage building.  This impressive amphitheater is located right next to the shopping district, with no particular fanfare.  Pretty cool.

Salting basins for the production of garum, from AD 300'sMy apologies for this picture – too much contrast, too much reflection from the glass – but I thought it was cool.  It’s close to the amphitheater, and shows 4 separate salting basins that the Romans used in the making of garum, a fish sauce made from a base of sardines and anchovies, and highly prized in the AD 300’s.  There are a number of these in Málaga, usually residing in basements (unearthed when building foundations).

I’d show you the the mosque from Moorish times, but when Málaga was reconquered by the Catholics in 1487, it was razed to build La Catedral de la Encarnación (you, citizen, are not Muslim anymore).  Started in the early 1500’s, the cathedral was finished in the 1700’s.  It is impressive, as shown below.

Speaking of Catholics, we’re in our bedroom when we hear increasing noise – a parade! – just outside.  Sure enough, a procession turns the corner and comes right past our window.  A marching band is playing in the distance, lots of drums, and marching past are priests and people ambling slowly along.  And then, rounding the corner, comes the church’s monstrance (Roman Catholic: large ornate piece containing the Heavenly Host).

It is taking 100 mostly young men to carry it, slowly and very carefully; a human millipede.  It does not look comfortable!  For reasons unknown they stop right outside our window, and we get a great look.  Then the band and they start up again, everybody perfectly in slow step, arms swinging in sync.  Clearly if one person falls, bad things could happen, and this must be well-rehersed.  Pretty cool!

I’ve been saving the best for last – Málaga’s Alcazaba.  It’s out of temporal sequence in this blog: it should have been presented before the Catholic cathedral.  After conquering Spain in the early 700’s, the Moors ruled Málaga for nearly 800 years.  The governor’s home, the Alcazaba, is part palace but mostly a fortress based on the best defensive theory of the day.  In the first picture of the amphitheater above, you can see a section of its surrounding wall.  Actually it has two concentric walls, as can be seen in the models below.

If you wanted to attack, other than storming the fortress over the two walls (and uphill), you had to enter via the front door.  To make that access difficult (in addition to uphill), the entry path consisted of long, exposed back-and-forth paths connected by tight enclosed 90º or 180º turns to restrict the number of people passing through at one time.  And of course there are extensive vantage points to shoot down at the poor souls on the path.  Please, Mr. Custer!  We’ll walk up the paths so you can see this, as shown below.

We exit from that last tower/entrance to a very attractive garden (shown below).  Oh – and if you look around a bit – the 2nd set of walls!  We’ve just made it to outside the palace walls.  There are more fortifications to navigate!  And of course there are yet more

defensible gates (below), and the route has two exposed 90º turns.  Finally we

come to the palace.

Well, after seeing the palace at Sevilla, this isn’t so impressive!  Of course, Sevilla is an incredibly high bar to best.  Although the “palace” here has Moorish arches and fragments of delicate plasterwork, View of the Mediterranean from the Alcazabait’s not well preserved, and it’s hard to visualize what was really here 600 years before the Catholic Reconquista.  Even as it is, however, we could see living here in AD 1000 with a great view of the Mediterranean!

Although the fortress was designed to be impregnable, technology has a way of thwarting plans; the arrival of gunpowder and artillery needed a response, and so in the 1300’s a castle (Castillo de Gibralfaro) was built to defend the Alcazaba!  Unfortunately we never made it there, although here is a picture of its walls from the Alcazaba.Walls of Castillo de Gibralfaro


Well, hope you enjoyed this visit to Málaga, a delightful city off the tourist path.

Next stop is the highlight of our Spanish trip – Cordoba.

Andalucia, Moorish History and Architecture

This is about Sevilla. However, I think this entire Andalucian region needs some introduction. So this is going to be long, and talk about history with my novice understanding, so skip to the next section if you don’t want context.

Sevilla was fascinating, especially the Alcazar. Unlike the U.S., there is an enormous strong link between history and the architecture one sees. Especially in Andalucia, where the Muslim and Christian cultures fought so hard during the (400 year long) “Reconquista”. Let this non-historian give you some non-studied history, not because I have any unique insight, but simply because this history/architecture link hits you between the eyes, and can’t be ignored. First came the Phoenicians, for which not much remains, mostly stone walls, and that visible only from excavations – usually inside a building and below ground. We’re talking 6th century BC. Digging foundations for a new building here usually means a delay for an archeological investigation, and the middle of a hotel’s dining room can have a fenced-off section of Phoenician walls. Then came the pagan/Christian Romans, and their visible stone foundations are often a part of the “newer” buildings – not to mention the occasional amphitheater or remaining vertical columns of a temple – or their architectural influences. Then came the Visigoths in the late 300’s, and they were Christian and did more destruction than building, apparently. It would appear to this pagan that the primary usefulness of Visigoths in this region of Spain is that of a foil for the Catholic church to argue that Moorish structures are a temporary aberration in time and less important with less rights than the continuous development of Christianity. History here seems to be physical and real with issues somewhat similar to water rights in the American Southwest. A Catholic church that has Moorish parts runs into discussions when alterations are desired.

Anyway, back to my story. The Visigoths were nomadic and small-village people, and when the Moors swept in from Africa there was not much resistance. Coming from Africa, the Moors were enthralled by all the water they found; and on the Roman foundations they built incredibly beautiful – let me repeat, incredibly beautiful – structures. After, of course, leveling facesChristian churches and knocking the faces off sculptures of humans since the Koran doesn’t like that. And the Koran says to wash up before entering a city or church, so water was piped to plentiful public and private baths, as well as patios and fountains and gardens. And the spaces, decorated without depicting animals or people, are very geometric and intricate, seldom repeating, and are everywhere, providing a jaw-dropping feast for the eyes and a tranquility for the soul.

The Moors came to this region of Spain in the 700’s or earlier, where much of the architecture we see was begun. Moorish kings got really wealthy with trade between Africa and Europe (and their own silk business) and built fabulous palaces (and needed fortresses). A lot of this really beautiful stuff was built between the 1200’s and 1400’s. So we’re talking about use and re-use for 500 years or longer, without much sprawl (being close to the fortress had some advantages for survival). If you’re doing any historical restoration, it’s hard to know at what time point you want to go back to. Anyway, as Europe trudged through the Dark Ages, Moorish magnificence and intellectual thought bloomed. And it’s still here to see!

And then came the Reconquista, and Christian Spain North got united (with Austria) and began reclaiming the peninsula. It was slow going for 400 years! As Muslim city after city fell, the victorious Christians, having lost many lives, wanted to make a statement to remaining residents, and typically leveled the mosques and built YOU’RE CHRISTIAN NOW! churches that are pretty in-your-face. Except where the Moorish mosques were so incredibly beautiful that they couldn’t in their hearts tear it down. So some of it is preserved. In Cordoba they built this humoungous Catholic church smack in the middle of the mosque, preserving a bunch of the mosque, but we’ll get to that in another posting. What one sees today is a striking juxtaposition of this beautiful Moorish poetry in architecture, with typically bombastic Catholic architecture that took a hundred years to build (thus incorporating all the successive architecture in vogue, Gothic to Renaissance to finishing touches in Baroque), gilded in gold, big and ostentatious.

Today what one sees is remnants of the Moorish world starting from 900 or so, the older stuff typically walls, Moorish baths, and water-delivery systems (see Ronda), with that same or nearby space occupied by a subsequently flourishing Muslim world until the late 1400’s (and amazing parts of that world of the 1200-1400’s still preserved). Let me show you some of them in subsequent posts!