Elizabeth Lake

Who of us knew walking would become a thing when this pandemic first hit? Not me. Such a simple act, which has been my balm in Gilead these past nineteen months.

And yet, who of us by this time are not bored to tears with their neighbourhood, having explored every corner of it?

Even me — and I live next door to one of Canada’s most spectacular urban parks.

And so, on this Thanksgiving I am grateful that the stars have aligned and I have a (temporary) change of scenery. I’m in Central Alberta for some weeks, which at the moment is stunning in all its fall glory. There are lots of trails and walks to discover, too. Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon walking around Elizabeth Lake, in the centre of Lacombe.

Here’s some of what I saw.

Córdoba

If you draw a triangle on a map of Andalucía with Seville at one corner and Granada at another, Córdoba is at its apex. As my final stop, this city truly felt like a culmination of my week in Andalucía.

Just as I had in Granada and Seville, I arrived in Córdoba after dark. The bonus about late arrivals are scenes like this.

That’s the Mezquita, which I have posted about before. Here’s a look inside.

The Mezquita is a cathedral built inside a mosque built on top of a church. Its bell tower encompasses the mosque’s minaret.

Orange trees are ubiquitous throughout Andalucía. (There are 25,000 trees in Seville alone.) This is in the Courtyard of the Orange Trees, which is part of the Mezquita.

Not far from the Mezquita is the Jewish Quarter.

This small synagogue is no longer used for worship, but it is open to the public. Its walls are done in the Mudéjar style. That’s the women’s gallery up above.

Córdoba’s Jewish Quarter is filled with narrow streets like this one. I’ve written a lot about the Moorish influence on Spain, but it should also be noted that Spain’s Jewish community used to be one of the largest in Western Europe.

My first day in Córdoba was wet and dreary, but the next day dawned cold and clear with spectacular blue skies, unlike any I’d yet seen in Andalucía.

It was the perfect finish to my 48 hours in Córdoba, and to my exploration of Andalucía.

Seville

As I am making my way around Spain through these blog posts, I’ve come to the realization that I’m nowhere near finished with this country. There’s still so much for me to see and, also, so many places I want to revisit.

Like Seville.

After 48 hours in Granada, I moved on to the capital of Anadalucía. I didn’t have near enough time in Seville either, but I was able to thoroughly explore two of its main sights: the Cathedral and the Alcázar.

Catedral de Santa María de la Sede (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See) is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, and second-largest church in all Europe — only St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger.

It’s built on the former site of a mosque, but the only part of it that predates the Reconquista is the Giraldo. Built in the twelfth century, it was the minaret of the mosque and is now the Cathedral’s bell tower.

If you climb up to the top, the view of the Cathedral from on high gives you a sense of its immense size.

Seville’s Alcázar is where the Catholic Monarchs oversaw Spain’s explorations of the Americas, and where Christopher Columbus reported back to after his travels. (He is buried in the Cathedral.) The main difference between this royal palace and the Alhambra is that the Alhambra was built by the Moors for their use, whereas the Alcázar was built in the Moorish style for Christian rulers — the architectural style known as Mudejar.

Like the Alhambra, the Alcázar has some splendid gardens.

Which obviously require a lot of work to maintain.

As Spain’s fourth-largest city, Seville has a very different feel from the other Spanish cities I’ve written about so far. Its size, for one.

And some modern touches, for another.

All too soon, another 48 hours had flown by and it was time, once again, for me to move on. Adiós, Seville. Until next time.

The Alhambra

There are imposing castles. There are opulent palaces. There are magnificent gardens.

And then … then there’s the Alhambra. It’s all three in one and far more spectacular than any place I have ever been. Plus, it’s in a most scenic location, surrounded by groves of cypress trees with the Sierra Nevada in the distance.

Its name is Arabic. Al-qala’a al-hamra means the Red Castle. Although parts of it are thought to date back to Roman times, most of it is steeped in the Moorish culture that Spain was immersed in for almost a thousand years.

Changes were made to it after Granada was reconquered by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. Their grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, tore down some of the Moorish palaces to make room for a Renaissance monstrosity that was never completed. Much later, Napoleon’s army attempted to blow the whole thing up. But since the mid-nineteenth century, the Alhambra has been a protected site, with much restoration work already completed and more still ongoing.

I was up early on my first morning in Granada, despite a late arrival the night before, as I could not wait to explore. After a quick breakfast of café con leche and toast smeared with tomato in a local bar near my hotel, I started out for the Alhambra, intending to walk up the hill. (“It can’t be that far. It’s right over there!”) I soon realized I had no idea where I was going, so I backtracked to a major street and hopped on the first bus I saw that said “Alhambra.”

Within minutes of my arrival, I was admitted with my prebooked timed-admission ticket (a necessity, even in November) and was approaching the palaces via this magnificent walkway.

This is the thirteenth-century Alcazaba, or fortress, with the Torre de la Vela (watchtower), which offers a fabulous view over the whole of Granada.

And it also provides this view of the Palacios Nazaries (left) and the Palacio de Carlos V (right).

The Palacio de Carlos V, named after the man who commissioned it, consists of a two-level circular courtyard with 32 columns, surrounded by a square building — a circle within a square, in other words. It was designed by an architect from Toledo who is thought to have been a student of Michelangelo’s.

The Palacios Nazaries are a series of interconnecting palaces and courtyards that served as both the official and personal residences of the Muslim rulers while Granada was under Moorish control. The name comes from the Nasdrid dynasty whose emirs ruled Spain from 1230 to 1492. This first courtyard is called the Patio del Cuarto Dorado (Courtyard of the Gilded Room). It’s where the ruling emir would hold his audiences.

Here’s a closer look at some of the intricate carving in this courtyard.

This next courtyard is called the Patio de los Arrayanes (Courtyard of the Myrtles).

Here it is from the opposite end. Surrounding this courtyard is the palace that served as the official residence of the emir.

The Patio de los Arrayanes leads to the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), where the emir’s private quarters were located. Its four halls are filled with intricate arches like these …

… and mesmeric ceilings like these.

Within the Palacio de los Leones is the Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions), which is partly shown below. Its centrepiece is a majestic fountain formed by 12 marble lions arranged in a circle, but, sadly, it was under wraps for restoration work when I was there. (Of course, this means I have to come back one day to see it properly.)

This, the Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace), is the oldest palace in the Alhambra.

And this building used to be a mosque for the private use of the emir. It was later converted to a chapel.

These are some of the gardens in the Palacios Nazaries complex. I can’t imagine living in such a place, but there’s a part of me that would love to, just for a little while.

Next to the Palacios Nazaries is the summer palace of the emirs, the Palacio de Generalife.

It’s surrounded by a series of interconnecting gardens. Here is the Patio de la Acequia (Courtyard of the Canal).

And this is one section of the Jardines Nuevos (New Gardens), a set of gardens built in the early twentieth century.

As much as I wish they could, my photos really don’t give the Alhambra justice. I was in Granada in the late fall, which meant there were fewer crowds to deal with, but also gloomy skies. And even though the gardens were lovely that time of year, I promised myself I would return some day in the springtime. Night visits of the Alhambra are also possible.

Wandering around a Moorish palace after dark? Now that would be seriously cool.

Granada

On my third and most recent trip to Spain, I did a whistle-stop tour of Andalucía. Andalucía is another of Spain’s autonomous communities, like Castile La Mancha and Castile and León. If you think of the country as divided in four parts from east to west, Andalucía fills up the bottom fourth. It lies along both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; Castile La Mancha is directly to the north.

My first stop was Granada, which at one point was one of the richest cities in Europe. It was from here that the Moors were finally driven out of Spain back to Africa. Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, known also as Boabdil, surrendered Granada to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. As he left the city, Boabdil turned for one last look and let out what has been immortalized as “the Moor’s last sigh.”

Touring the Catholic Monuments of Granada can take a whole day — with my limited time, I had to squeeze it into a morning.

Remember when I wrote that Ferdinand and Isabella originally planned to be buried in Toledo, and built a monastery for that purpose, but then changed their minds after they saw Granada? Yeah, about that. This, the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), is where they ended up instead.

Right next door is the Cathedral, the second largest in Spain. Like the Capilla Real, it was commissioned by Queen Isabella, but building didn’t start until after her death. It was completed in 1704 and it’s a hodge-podge of architectural styles: Baroque on the outside and Spanish Renaissance with Gothic roof vaults on the inside.

As I exited the cathedral, I was greeted by Roma women offering me sprigs of rosemary. I shook my head as I had to keep moving. My next stop was the Monasterio de San Jeronómo and its cloisters, which I’ve posted about before.

As prevalent as the Catholic presence is in Granada, there is also heaps of Moorish history. This is the Albayzín.

I would have loved to spend an afternoon getting lost in the maze of streets that make up this old Moorish quarter, but due to my time constraints, I had maybe an hour.

What I did get to see of the Albayzín was this: the viewpoint from the terrace at Iglesia de San Nicolás (Church of Saint Nicholas).

People flock here to take this photo.

That would be the Alhambra, with the Sierra Nevada in the distance. The Alhambra is the reason most tourists visit Granada, and deserves a post all its own.

Stay tuned.

Through My Lens: Mystic Beach

I always find it so overwhelming — and so very humbling — to stand on the edge of the continent, like I did earlier this week. This is at Mystic Beach, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Tilting at Windmills

Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them ….”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”

“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

One adventure I was keen to experience for myself on our two-week jaunt around central Spain were those very windmills that Don Quixote had confused for giants. A photograph of the mills somewhere sometime had caught my eye, and I promised myself I would one day see them for myself.

And so I did. Windmills are a big part of my heritage, so maybe my love of windmills is in my genes. Or maybe it’s just because windmills are so beautiful.

The windmills in Spain were modelled after the Dutch windmills, but the difference between them is the Dutch mills are mainly used to pump water, whereas the mills in Spain were built to grind grain, mostly wheat.

This first group of windmills are at Consuegra. Built in the sixteenth century, there were 13 mills originally, of which 12 have been reconstructed. They were in use up until the 1980s.

The next group of windmills we visited are the ones at Campo de Criptana. Here, there are ten mills altogether, situated at the edge of a village. It was very windy when we were here and we kept moving around the mills, trying to find a calm place in which to eat our picnic lunch, but to no avail.

The last group of windmills we stopped at were at Mota del Cuerro.

The landscape of this part of Castile La Mancha is flat, dry, dusty, and windy. Way off in the distance, there are mountains. It reminds me of parts of Alberta, actually, and that may be why I fell in love with this part of Spain.

My memories of our visit to Castilla La Mancha and Castile and León are dim and faded, but revisiting the region through these blog posts has brought it all back again. Which has been lovely. It’s a region of Spain that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but deserves far more.

Castles in the Sky

You know the saying “castles in the sky”? Supposedly it comes from a much older expression about building castles in Spain — a feat considered impossible because for centuries much of Spain was under Moorish control.

The autonomous communities of Castile La Mancha and Castile and León that my sister and I spent two weeks exploring both have “castle” in their names. So … we did the obvious. We rented a car and went looking for some. For the record, there are a lot of castles in Spain, all of them firmly planted on the ground. Nobody was home at the ones we stopped by, but, even so, our efforts were rewarded by some amazing views of the Spanish countryside.

This one, Mombeltrán Castle, also known as the Castle of the Dukes of Alburquerque, is near Ávila. Built in the late fifteenth century on top of a strategic hilltop, it likely had a moat at one time that has long since been filled in.

The Castle of Turégano is close to Segovia and was built on top of an Arab fortress. The Romanesque church of San Miguel Arcángel was added much later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, converting the structure into a church-castle. You can just make out the bell tower in this photo, which was taken from the back of the castle.

The next two castles are also near Segovia. The Castle of Coca is considered one of the finest examples of Mudéjar brickwork and is one of the few castles in the area not situated on top of a hill. It was built in the fifteenth century by Alonso de Fonseca, who later served as the Bishop of Ávila, then the Archbishop of Seville, and then the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela.

Pedraza Castle was first built in the thirteenth century on the ruins of Roman and Arab fortifications and then rebuilt many times over the centuries. Legend has it that a one-time lord of the castle, Sancho de Ridaura, married a beautiful woman named Elvira. She herself was in love with a young farmer named Roberto. The inconsolable Roberto entered a monastery after the wedding, but many years later, he and Elvira rekindled their love. When Sancho found out, he had Roberto killed. Elvira ran to her room, set the tower on fire, then thrust a dagger into her heart. It is said that on summer nights in Pedraza, you can see the lovers walking beneath a ring of fire.

Who doesn’t have a favourite fairy tale set in a castle? If you don’t, then I highly recommend a driving tour through central Spain.

Because castles in the sky will let your imagination fly.

Seeking Shade

I learned a new meteorological term this week: heat dome. What’s a heat dome, you ask?

A heat dome is when the summer sun warms the air, which then rushes up into the atmosphere to form a dome of slow-moving hot air. It’s different than an ordinary high-pressure system, however, because it’s stuck and can take a long time to move on.

The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia experienced a heat dome this past weekend, which has now moved on to Alberta. And so, this morning, for the first time in four days, I woke to comfortable temperatures.

Yup. It was four days of intense heat where the temperature was 20°C above the seasonal normal. Because we had a typical June-uary here in Vancouver (meaning the average daily high was about 18°C), the sudden change in temperature was a bit of a shock. But the time of year also means there is little time for the temperatures to cool down at night. It doesn’t get dark until after 10 p.m. and by 4 a.m., it is already starting to get light.

I know that many parts of the world have endured extreme heat waves before — northern Europe comes to mind — but it’s pretty unusual for Vancouver, which has a temperate climate and rarely experiences extreme hot or cold. I haven’t felt this warm in Vancouver in a very long time — more than a decade, to be honest.

Yesterday a colleague in Toronto asked me if we were also experiencing the same humidity that Toronto gets. I don’t think so, I told her. To my memory (which could certainly be faulty given the time that has passed since I lived in Toronto), what is an extreme heat wave for Vancouver actually feels much like a normal summer day for Toronto.

That’s not to say this heat dome didn’t have serious outcomes. At least 486 sudden and unexpected deaths have occurred in Metro Vancouver since Friday, which is about 300 deaths more than is typical in that time frame. To put that number into context, the health risks from this heat wave are greater than Covid right now. Much of the health risk is because the homes in Vancouver aren’t built to withstand this heat — most of us don’t have air conditioning. To provide some relief, cooling centres were set up in local community centres and libraries.

Until this past weekend, the hottest ever recorded temperature in Canada was 45°C in Saskatchewan, set back in July 1937. That record was shattered on Sunday at Lytton in the Fraser Canyon, about 250 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, when the temperature reached 46.6°C. That record lasted a mere 24 hours. And it was broken again yesterday, with a record high of 49.6°C. For my readers who think in Fahrenheit, that’s 121°F. These are not the kinds of records we want to be setting. That’s hotter than the highest-ever recorded temperature for Las Vegas.

Naturally, when there are hot, dry conditions, there is always the threat of wildfires. Tonight, Lytton burned to the ground. Residents of the village had only minutes to evacuate.

To get through my commitments for this week, I started work at 6 a.m. so I could stop at noon. And then, I headed to the beach where I found myself a comfortable spot in the shade. I do not know how I’d have gotten through these past few days without those hours of respite that the sea breeze off English Bay provided me.

Segovia

There are three things that, in a word, will knock your socks off when you first set foot in Segovia.

First, there’s the Roman aqueduct.

I am in awe of structures this old, built without the machinery we have today. Or mortar, for that matter. This one dates back to the first century CE.

Then there’s the Alcázar.

Situated at one end of the medieval city, like the prow of a ship, it has served Segovia as fortress, royal palace, and prison. Currently, it is a museum.

And lastly, there’s the cathedral. That’s the tall building in the centre of this photo, which I took from the Alcázar.

Built in the sixteenth century in the late Gothic style, it was undergoing restoration work when we were there — hence, the scaffolding.

Segovia is about 75 kilometres northeast of Ávila, and was the final stop of our tour through Castile La Mancha and Castile and León. What Segovia, Ávila, and Toledo have in common is they are all technically do-able as day trips from Madrid. But don’t short-change yourself. Spend at least a couple of nights in each city — you won’t regret it.