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 Castilla 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 united 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Brugge is chock full of art. For starters, there’s Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. There’s also an Anthony Van Dyck, one of the many paintings he did of the crucifixion. And then there’s this magnificent triptych by the Flemish painter Bernard van Orley, which is my photo choice for today, the Third Sunday of Lent.
Note the tombs flanking the altar. They belong to Mary of Burgundy and her father, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Upon her father’s 1477 death at the Battle of Nancy, Mary became the Duchess of Burgundy and ruled until her death due to a riding accident at age 25.
During archaeological work done in the 1970s, Mary’s remains were positively identified. The tomb of Charles was found empty, however. Although his great-grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had the remains of Charles the Bold brought to Brugge, it is believed that they were buried in St. Donatian’s Cathedral of Brugge, which was destroyed after the French Revolution.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here’s another church from Brugge. This one is called the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood). Its name comes from a vial of blood kept here, said to have been taken from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea and brought to Brugge during the Crusades.
Located in a corner of the Burg, one of the squares in Brugge’s Old Town, you wouldn’t know it’s a church from its exterior; it blends right in with the Stadhuis next door. The Heilig-Bloedbasiliek is also unique in that it’s on two levels. The lower Romanesque chapel dates back to the twelfth century. I took the photo above in the upper chapel, which was built at the end of the fifteenth century in the Romanesque style and then rebuilt a century later in the Gothic style.
I quite liked the eighteenth-century pulpit. It was built in the shape of a globe to commemorate Mark 16:15, which says, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.
Once again, we are in the Season of Lent and, once again, I’m taking you on a tour of churches I’ve photographed. This year, it’s Belgium’s turn.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (Saint Saviour’s Cathedral) in Brugge. A church has stood on this site since 646, making it the oldest church in Brugge. Parts of the current structure date back to 1275.
My hotel was across the street from this magnificent building. Sadly, I didn’t have the foresight to book a room with a view.
Next time, then.