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.
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.
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.
My weekend in Barcelona was one of those rare trips where I had next-to-no time for planning. It came about because I was whining to a friend about having no idea of where to go or what to do with the vacation time I had to use or lose, to which she sweetly responded by inviting me to join her in Barcelona. Before I knew what was happening, we were soaking up the Mediterranean sun together.
And so, when my friend suggested we start off the weekend with a self-guided walking tour she’d found in the guide book I’d purchased but not yet cracked open, I was all for it.
The tour was called the Modernisme Circuit and I had absolutely no expectations. Which is probably why I was so taken aback by my first few hours in Barcelona.
See, there was this Catalan architect. Antoni Gaudí was his name and he is at the heart of what makes Barcelona so unique. I had never heard of the guy, but as my friend and I walked from one Gaudí-designed building to the next, our mouths were agape. And I couldn’t stop taking photos, of course.
Gaudí’s designs were deeply influenced by his love of the natural world. There are no straight lines on his buildings. Like this one.
A large family home, Casa Batlló was built in 1877. In 1904, its new owner hired Gaudí to tear it down and build another, but Gaudí said no. He would remodel it instead. This is the result.
Casa Milà was another private commission. It was built between 1905 and 1910.
As I wrote above, Gaudí was deeply influenced by the natural world. Storks (the real ones) on rooftops are a common sight in Spain.
One of Gaudí’s best patrons was a Catalan industrialist named Eusebi Güell. He commissioned several buildings in and around Barcelona, including the elaborate Park Güell, which opened in 1926. My friend and I spent several hours wandering around this spectacular park.
Upon his graduation from architecture school, it has been said that Gaudí was told, “Who knows if we have given a diploma to a nutcase or a genius? Time will tell.”
Genius, I’m thinking.
Last week I showed you what Notre-Dame Basilica looks like on the outside. Today, for the Second Sunday of Lent, I’m taking you inside, where the difference from a grey stone exterior could not be more stark.
None of the European cathedrals I’ve visited come close to the unique wonder of the interior of this basilica. It is said that the priest and architect who worked on the design were inspired by Saint-Chappelle in Paris.
This year, for Lent, I’m taking you on a tour of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the basilica taken from Place d’Armes, in the heart of Vieux-Montréal. The statue in front of the basilica is of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, co-founder along with Jeanne Mance of the first colony of French settlers on the island of Montreal.
The first church on this site went up in 1672. The present-day building, designated a basilica in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, was built between 1824 and 1829. The two spires took an additional ten years and are modelled after Notre-Dame de Paris and Saint-Sulpice.
Notre-Dame Basilica is the first church in Canada to be built in the Gothic Revival style. The architect was an American from New York named James O’Donnell. He converted to Catholicism before his death and he is buried in the crypt.
I’ve written before about my summer in Quebec City — and how six weeks is a nice chunk of time to get to know a place. Even so, I was surprised last year during my visit to Vieux-Québec at how familiar the place was.
Still. After all these years.
I arrived from Montreal by train around midday, and the funny little man at my budget hotel offered to outline a nice walking tour for me on his map.
“Non, merci!” I said, smiling. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
He looked up from his map, a little surprised and, I think, a little insulted. But he shrugged, handed me the map, and off I went.
Encircled by its original ramparts, Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town. I chose to stay in the Lower Town, just a few steps from the train station to make my arrival more convenient for me, but it turned out to be a serendipitous choice.
I was close enough to the action, so to speak, but far enough away that I had some enjoyable late evening walks back to my hotel through quiet streets.
The name “Quebec” comes from an Indigenous word meaning “where the river narrows.” That narrowing river is the mighty Saint Lawrence.
The first permanent European settlement at Quebec City was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Le Petit Champlain, the oldest quarter of Vieux-Québec, is named for him, and Rue du Petit-Champlain (shown in this next photo) is its main drag.
Vieux-Québec is filled with stone buildings dating back to the seventeen century, with their characteristic French-style roofs.
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, in Place-Royale, is the oldest stone church in North America. It was built in 1688.
At the edge of the Upper Town, Dufferin Terrace lets you walk from the foot of the Citadelle to Chateau Frontenac, and provides a magnificent view over the Saint Lawrence River, the Lower Town, and, on a good day, the Laurentian Mountains.
A sign of the not insignificant role of the Catholic Church in Quebec’s history are the many church spires scattered throughout Vieux-Québec.
And then there’s this grand building, the Séminaire de Québec, which takes you by surprise when you round the corner. The seminary was founded in 1663, and this building declared a national historic site in 1929.
Vieux-Québec is the only walled city in Canada or the United States.
I wrote above about how familiar Vieux-Québec was for me, even after all these years. For my mother, not so much. I happened to be with her on her first time back in Quebec City, some 40 years after her arrival by immigrant ship. I remember watching her as she leaned over the railing that lines Dufferin Terrace, intently scanning the waterfront below us. I could see how much she wanted to recognize something … anything.
Finally she stepped back and shook her head. It was no good; nothing about the port looked familiar to her.
I doubt it was because she was too young to remember — a child’s memories can be quite vivid, and I suspect that her first impressions of a new country were imprinted on her mind. What it does speak to is that there are parts of Vieux-Québec that have changed over the years, after all, and a port that greeted new Canadians for more than 200 years looks quite different from the port that now greets tourists arriving by cruise ship.
Vieux-Québec was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. It is indeed a special place and should really be visited by every Canadian.
Six weeks, if you can. But if that’s not possible, then a couple of days will do nicely.
I may have mentioned before (just once or twice) that my favourite way to get to know a city is by walking it.
I may have also mentioned (just, erm, once or twice) that I’m a history geek. And so, getting to know Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) last May by walking it was a real treat for me. Like a moth to a flame, I set out on my first day for the oldest part of Montreal.
I should make it clear that when I say “oldest part,” I am referring to the part of Montreal first settled by Europeans. Long before the first Frenchman arrived on what we now call the island of Montreal, Indigenous peoples were living there. They called their settlement Hochelaga. That first Frenchman was Jacques Cartier, and he in turn named the mountain near Hochelaga Mount Royal, or, in sixteenth-century French, Mont Réal. That was in 1535.
The first French settlers, about 50 of them, arrived in 1642. They were led by Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, who are considered the co-founders of Montreal. Their interest was evangelical; they intended to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity. However, the fur trade soon became the focus of the new colony. To protect the French interests, Louis XIV sent over 1200 French soldiers. The Filles du Roi (the King’s Daughters) followed, also sent out by Louis XIV, to provide wives for all those fur traders and soldiers. And with that, it could be said, the colony of New France was off to the races.
Colonies need governors, and the building in the above photo, Château Ramezay, was the home of one of the early governors of Montreal, a chap named Claude de Ramezay. Built in 1705, it is one of Montreal’s oldest buildings and is located on Place Jacques-Cartier, the centre of Vieux-Montréal. The house was sold by his descendants, and at one time served as the Canadian headquarters of the Continental Army (that would be the army of the American colonials who fought the British during the American Revolution). It is said that Benjamin Franklin was a one-time guest in this house in 1776 when he came looking for military help from New France in the way of soldiers.
Eventually, the château was turned into a museum, which it remains today. The restored gardens behind the château are particularly lovely.
This next house, Maison du Calvet, was built in the 1700s. It looks like it was lifted right out of Brittany. Most recently, it’s been a hotel, but at one time it was the home of Pierre du Calvet, a supporter of the American Revolution. He also met with Benjamin Franklin when he came to New France.
Across the street from Maison du Calvet is this church, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Good Help Chapel). Founded in 1655 by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, it’s one of the oldest churches in Montreal. This building dates from 1771. The chapel became popular with the sailors who came through the port of Montreal.
Speaking of sailors, this next building is the Old Custom House, which served a significant function in the burgeoning Montreal trade. When the city was declared an official point of entry for Lower Canada in 1832, it needed some administrative buildings, and this one was completed in 1838. It has two facades; this side faces the Saint Lawrence River. The building is now part of Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History.
What I like about this photo is how it shows several centuries of architectural style: directly behind the customs house are the spires of Notre-Dame Basilica (completed shortly before the customs house), behind it to the right is the Aldred Building, built in the Art Deco style and finished in 1931, and behind it to the left is the nondescript bank tower that went up in the 1960s.
Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market), below, was the public market of Montreal for more than 100 years after its completion in 1847. It also housed the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1849 and served as Montreal’s City Hall from 1852 to 1878. It is said to have been modelled after the Custom House in Dublin, which speaks to the long history of the Irish in Montreal. The building is now home to restaurants and shops, banquet rooms, and offices.
Here is Montreal’s current Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). It was built in the Second Empire style between 1872 and 1878. For those of us who are familiar with Quebec history, it was from this building’s balcony that Charles de Gaulle, president of France, gave his infamous speech in 1967. He proclaimed “vive le Québec libre,” which then became a rallying cry for the Quebec separatist movement of the late twentieth century.
Thankfully, the movement did not succeed and Quebec is still part of Canada. And we are the richer for it.
Four days ago, the world was stunned by the sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames, and in tears at the possibility that it might collapse. Its salvation came down to a matter of minutes as the firefighters fought to keep the fire from spreading to the wooden frames of the bell towers. Had that happened, it would have been game over. The bells would have come crashing down, taking the two towers with them.
Since then, we’ve learned that Notre-Dame has fire monitors who inspected the wooden frame that held up the roof — known as la forêt (the Forest) — three times a day. We’ve also learned that just last year the Parisian firefighters carried out training exercises in how to rescue Notre-Dame’s artwork and relics. At the height of the fire, when it was thought the Cathedral was at risk of collapse, 100 of the 500 firefighters were busy moving those works of art to safety. They were following the protocol set in place long ago: first save the people, then save the art, then save the building.
But we’ve also since learned that Notre-Dame’s wooden roof structure had no sprinklers or firewalls, which contributed to how quickly the fire spread. And there has been a years-long battle between church and state as to who should pay for the overdue and badly needed restoration work that was underway. (All cathedrals in France are owned by the French state and leased to the Catholic church.)
One doesn’t need to be a person of faith to be impressed by Notre-Dame for its architectural beauty and its historical significance. Gothic architecture originated in France and Notre-Dame was among the first of the great cathedrals to be built. Construction began in 1163 and took 200 years to complete. Stained glass and flying buttresses were new ideas back then, and Victor Hugo called the result a “vast symphony in stone.”
There is probably no symbol of France and French culture equal to Notre-Dame. It sits on the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, known as Lutetia some 2000 years ago when humans first settled along the Seine. The “snail” of the famous arrondissements of Paris begins directly in front of the Cathedral. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804; its bells toll at times of national significance, such as the end of Nazi occupation in 1944. Heavily damaged during the French Revolution, Notre-Dame has since survived other revolutions and uprisings as well as two world wars. That endurance is likely why, as a building, it is so close to the hearts of so many people.
That endurance is also likely why we take Notre-Dame for granted. On my last visit to Paris, I didn’t even bother to go inside. To be honest, I’ve never been much impressed by its interior. I find it dark and grimy compared to other European cathedrals and the crowds are unbearable. My nieces took one look at the long line of people snaking across the square in front and emphatically declared they were not waiting in line to see a church, even if it was Notre-Dame. I didn’t push it.
Instead, I took them around the back to show them where Notre-Dame’s real beauty lies: in its intricate exterior and its symphony of flying buttresses.
I get why people talk of Notre-Dame as if it were a sentient being. And if you think of it like that — as a living, breathing building — then this week’s fire is simply one more event in its long and sometimes turbulent life.
And therein lies hope for its future. All great cathedrals have been nearly destroyed and then restored. England’s York Minster suffered a devastating fire in 1984 — something I only learned about this week despite having visited that church several times. Its roof was rebuilt with English oak. Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris, lost its medieval roof in 1836. It was rebuilt with iron and copper. And because of restorations like these and others, the know-how needed to rebuild Notre-Dame exists, despite media reports that those skills are long gone.
This week happens to be Holy Week — one of the most significant weeks in the Christian calendar. Regular readers of this blog know how enamoured I am with ecclesiastical architecture, as evident by my annual Lenten series. I’m sure I am not alone. The most awe-inspiring architecture has always been built for the gods we worship. Think of the Pyramids at Giza, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Acropolis in Athens …
Think of Notre-Dame …
Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of Holy Week that commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. As I looked up at the brand-new wooden roof of the cathedral in which I was worshipping, I found myself wondering how quickly it might burn if it were to ever catch on fire.
I pray I will never know.
I chose this photo for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, because I love how the different features of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk are visible in one shot.
There are the tall pillars, of course, And the pointed Gothic arches and windows.
What’s unique to the Oude Kerk is its wooden ceiling, which miraculously survived fires that swept through Amsterdam in 1421 and again in 1452 (after which wooden buildings were banned from the city). If you look closely, you can see the remains of the paintings commissioned by wealthy patrons.
And then there are the miniature ships. The Oude Kerk is steps away from the IJ and was traditionally a port church where the seamen came to pray for safety. The little ships are a testament to that history.