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.

Ávila

When my sister and I were ready to move on from Toledo, we headed to Ávila. Ávila is a little farther from Madrid than Toledo, but is northwest of Spain’s capital, whereas Toledo is to the south.

Like Toledo, Ávila has an impressive cathedral and monastery, not to mention a basilica — all of which I’ve posted about in the past. But what stood out upon our arrival were the massive, stone walls, with their eight gates and 88 towers.

These walls form an irregular rectangle around the medieval centre of Ávila.

Parts of the wall have been restored so you can walk on it.

We found ourselves staying in a small hotel just inside those walls, next to the cathedral. To the best of my memory, it was just around the corner in this next photo.

Although we didn’t know it then, my sister would find herself back in Avila some years later to do historical research. Naturally I came back to visit her. This was the street where she lived for a year.

Keep walking, and you came to this gate.

Walk through the gate, and this is your view.

Not too shabby, eh?

I soon learned that in Ávila you can’t avoid the sixteenth-century mystic and saint, Teresa of Ávila.

Born into nobility, Teresa joined the Carmelites at age 20. She sought a more reclusive life than was available with the Carmelites, however, so she established a reformed order of Carmelites. They made their home here, in the Convent of San José, which Teresa founded in 1562.

It was in Ávila where I first noticed the storks that are ubiquitous throughout Spain — this church steeple has four nests in all. And so I will leave you with this pro tip: when in Ávila, always look up.

Toledo

Where were we?

Oh, right. Spain. Ahem.

Not two years after my weekend in Barcelona, I got the chance to make another last-minute trip to Spain. This time the invite came from my sister, who was there for a month of study.

“You should come!” she said. “You’d love it here.”

And so, once again within a manner of weeks, I was on a plane, this time to Madrid. This time, however, I did a bit more upfront planning than I had managed to do for my weekend in Barcelona. Plus, I had my sister already on the ground, so to speak. We decided to do a circuit around Madrid that would take us into the two autonomous communities of Castile La Mancha and Castile and León.

The best part? We had two glorious weeks.

This was our first stop.

Toledo is an hour south of Madrid by train, and its medieval centre is a short walk from the station. As we walked across the Roman-built arched bridge (the Puente de Alcántara) and through the gates of the thick stone walls, I couldn’t help but think about all the pilgrims who had, since the Middle Ages, been arriving at the city in much the same way.

Our accommodations, I am sure, were much more luxurious. We got a room with a view — of the cathedral, no less, and a sea of ochre-coloured rooftops.

Toledo, we quickly discovered, is a maze of narrow passageways. And I soon learned that when a shop window called out to me or I caught sight of something I wanted to photograph, I had to stop because the chances of finding my way back to the same spot again were highly unlikely.

Toledo is also compact — we were never more than a 15-minute walk from our hotel — and we saw most of its highlights in a day and a half.

Namely, the Cathedral of Toledo, built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries …

… and the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, with its impressive two-storey cloister …

… and the Mudéjar-decorated ceilings of those cloisters, adorned with the coat of arms of Los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Monarchs), Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, whose marriage in 1469 created a dynastic union between the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. (Pay attention to their names. You hear them a lot when you travel through Spain.)

The monastery was intended to be the final resting place of the Catholic Monarchs, but after the reconquest of Granada in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella decided they’d rather be buried in the city of Granada. (Stay tuned — I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

We also paid a visit to the Iglesia de Santo Tomé, the church where the Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco is displayed, and then continued on to El Museo del Greco (a museum dedicated to the artist). El Greco spent half of his life in Toledo, hence the museum. If you’re a fan of his work, I recommend you pay the city a visit.

For some reason I don’t seem to have any photos from our visit to the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, but I do have this photo of a street tile marking the Jewish Quarter of Toledo.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews, Christians, and Muslims peacefully co-existed on the Iberian Peninsula. In many ways, Spain is a living memorial to how three cultures intermingled and influenced each other (see the Mudéjar-decorated ceiling up above). It is also why Toledo is known as the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas (City of Three Cultures). But that all ended with the expulsion of the Jews by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492.

Santa María la Blanca is impressive, for sure, but also unique in that it is a Jewish house of worship built by Islamic architects in a kingdom ruled by Catholics. (The synagogue was later converted to a church, which is why it bears the name Santa María.)

When we were worn out from sightseeing, my sister and I spent a lot of time people-watching in the centrally located Plaza de Zocodover or Plaza del Ayuntamiento in front of the Cathedral. And, um, enjoying the culinary delights that Toledo had to offer. Again, stay tuned. I will have more to say on that topic in another post.

For now, know that after only two days in central Spain, I realized my sister was right.

I did love it.

Through My Lens: Cherry Blossoms and Snowcaps

We reached peak Vancouver this week. I was in Stanley Park the other day, on the prowl for cherry blossoms to photograph, when the sun drew my eyes to the fresh snow atop the North Shore mountains.

Doesn’t get more Vancouver than that.

Happy Easter!

Sint-Michielskerk, Gent, September 2017

Through My Lens: Sint-Michielskerk

Even closer to Sint-Niklaaskerk than Sint-Baafskathedraal is Sint-Michielskerk (Saint Michael’s Church). It is this church, dedicated to the archangel Michael, that is my photo choice for Palm Sunday.

You can’t see the tower from this angle, but there is one — a mere 24 metres high. It was intended to be 134 metres tall, but the wars of religion (there were several) stopped the church’s construction in the sixteenth century. When construction began again a century later, the tower was never completed and it was only in 1828 that a roof was put on.

Through My Lens: Sint-Niklaaskerk

For the Fifth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of Sint-Niklaaskerk (Saint Nicholas Church). This is the view from around the back, which is what you see as you exit Sint-Baafskathedraal — that’s how jam-packed the medieval centre of Gent is.

Sint-Niklaaskerk dates back to the early thirteenth century and was built in the Scheldt Gothic style typical to Flanders at the time. Churches built in this style have a single large tower over the crossing, rather than the entrance. In the case of Sint-Niklaaskerk, the town bells were housed in its tower until the belfry next door was completed.

Through My Lens: Sint-Baafskathedraal

For the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I’m moving on to Gent. This is Sint-Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo Cathedral). A church has stood on this site since one was consecrated to Saint John the Baptist in 942. The Gothic structure you see here was completed sometime in the mid-sixteenth century.

Around the same time, the diocese of Gent was founded. This church was selected as the diocesan cathedral, and rededicated as Sint-Baafskathedraal. Saint Bavo was a rather rambunctious, wealthy young man, who, after the death of his wife, gave away all his possessions and became a monk.

Displayed in the cathedral under high security is the magnificent Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Known formally as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it has survived iconoclasm, revolution, dismantlement, fire, theft, and war. I highly recommend stopping by Gent to have a look at it for yourself.