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Through My Lens: Madrid Street Corner

I started writing about Spain way back in January, as a way of distracting me from the Long Winter (aka the second wave). And it worked, for the most part. But I never could have guessed I’d still be writing these posts near the end of 2021. (Or that we’d be in the middle of a fourth wave.)

What can I say? Pandemic brain is real.

But yes, all things must come to an end, even my reminiscing about Spain, and so I’m going to finish off the series with this photo of a street corner in Madrid. It’s appropriate as a metaphor, I’m thinking, because in many ways we are at a crossroads as we look ahead to our second pandemic winter and all the uncertainty that comes with it.

Spain is all about the number three for me. I’ve visited it three times, and on two of those trips I visited three cities each. I’ve spent three days in Barcelona and I’ve been to Madrid three times. All of that was a happy accident, but I’m glad my trips to Spain covered such different regions: Catalonia, Castille, and Andalucía. We Canadians tend to think of European countries as tiny and uniform, but they’re not. The culture and geography between regions are often as varied as different parts of Canada.

On my last ever night in Spain, I was wandering aimlessly through the centre of Madrid. It was a chilly night near the end of November and the streets were teeming with people. I never did figure out what the crowds were about, but it made for a festive evening. I had that sad melancholic feeling I often have on the last night of a trip, and I was delaying my return to my hotel.

Then, softly, gently, it started to snow. And I knew it was time to go home.

Armchair Traveller: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. … At the end of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life forever.

Laurie Lee’s memoir about his walk across Spain just prior to the start of the Spanish Civil War is a classic. If you are looking to read some quality travel writing about Spain, this is the book for you. I was a recent university grad when I first picked it up, the title catching my eye because I had a strong urge that summer to go on walkabout.

Exploring the world the way Laurie Lee did rarely takes place anymore, and reminds us all that whatever inconveniences we might experience on our travels are a cakewalk in comparison to his trek across Spain. Find the weather a tad uncomfortable? Laurie Lee endured heat stroke. Don’t like the food? Laurie Lee subsisted for days at a time on wild grapes and figs. Think travel is too expensive? Laurie Lee paid his way by playing his fiddle for pennies.

Don’t like going through multiple security checks? After a year in Spain, Laurie Lee finds himself in the middle of a war and has to leave the country, with just an hour’s notice, on a British destroyer sent out from Gibraltar to pick up stranded British citizens.

Laurie Lee didn’t gloss over the poverty he witnessed and described the people he met in a non-judgmental way that is refreshing. But as the months and the miles go by, with the rumours of war increasing, you know it’s a walk that might not end well.

At the end of the summer I first read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, I did the sensible thing and found myself a job. But the job didn’t stick and within the year, I had bought myself a rusty, years-old Honda Civic, packed it up with everything I owned, and drove across the country to start a new life.

And as I said goodbye to my mother, it was the first and only time upon leaving home that she cried.

Recipe Box: Gazpacho

In my tour through Spain these past almost eleven (!!) months, I haven’t been talking about the food. That’s been rather intentional — there were so many memorable meals I could have written about that it would have taken me off on another tangent altogether.

Those meals were so memorable that I made sure to pick up a couple of cookbooks to take home with me. One is filled with recipes of typical Spanish dishes and the other contains only tapas recipes. (Both are published in English — let’s just make that perfectly clear!) But when it came down to deciding which recipe, of all the Spanish dishes I like to re-create in my own kitchen, to write about here — well, that was a near impossible choice.

In the end, it was last summer’s heat dome that decided it for me. Gazpacho is a life-saver when the temperature hovers near 40ºC and as soon as I saw what was headed our way back in June, I whipped up a batch to sustain me through that crazy week.

Confession: the first time I was served gazpacho I really didn’t see what the big deal was. I was at a small dinner party here in Canada, and the host came out with a large bowl of finely chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers all mixed together. Gazpacho, she called it. And so, many years later when my sister and I were enjoying a round of tapas on our first night in Córdoba, I was taken aback when the gazpacho arrived.

This is gazpacho?” I said to my sister, pointing to my glass. It was beyond delicious and a world apart from the cold, sad mixture of vegetables I’d been led to believe was gazpacho. But, in case you are confused, gazpacho is not merely a thick version of V8 juice. It’s so much more than that.

My sister laments that she can no longer buy gazpacho by the carton the way she could when she lived in Spain. She now satisfies her craving with this recipe, which she claims is the closest to the gazpacho she had in Spain. And since we were always served gazpacho in a glass in Spain, I serve it that way here in Canada. Yes, it’s soup, but it’s perfectly quaffable.

And it’s the best meal to have when you’re in the middle of a heat dome.

Gazpacho

3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, cored and roughly chopped
1 small red onion, minced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 small serrano chili, seeded and minced
kosher salt
several slices day-old baguette
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar*

1. Place in a large bowl two-thirds of the tomatoes and half of the cucumber, bell pepper, and onion. Add the garlic, chili, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt. Combine well and set aside.
2. Toss with 1/2 teaspoon of salt the remaining tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, and onion, and place in a fine mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Set aside for one hour, then transfer to the bowl with the rest of the vegetables.
3. Add the baguette slices to the liquid drained from the vegetables. Soak for one minute, then add the bread and any remaining liquid to the vegetables. Toss well to combine.
4. Transfer half of the mixture to a blender and process several minutes until completely smooth. With the blender running, slowly add 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Strain soup through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl, then repeat with the remaining mixture and olive oil.**
5. Stir in the sherry vinegar and season to taste. Transfer to a pitcher, cover, and refrigerate overnight before serving.***

Notes:
*Use the best sherry vinegar you can find. I’ve learned that a poor-quality vinegar will make your gazpacho pretty much undrinkable.
**Some recipes call for setting aside some of the chopped vegetables to use as a garnish if you like. I don’t like, so never do.
***The flavours need time to blend, so don’t skimp on the waiting time. Several hours is the minimum.

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.

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.

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.