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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, here we are. Still in the thick of the Long Winter (aka the second wave). Although the early daffodils have started blooming in Vancouver, I’m far more excited about tonight’s forecast calling for snow. Just, you know, to shake things up a bit. (It has been a snowless and very rainy winter for me so far.)
I was thinking that I also need to shake things up a bit on this blog. A travel-related topic to focus on would go a long ways to stop me from writing about the weather (ahem) or this year’s obsession (the pandemic).
And so, to that end, I’m going to concentrate on Spain for the next little while. I’ve always meant to write about this fascinating country, but somehow it kept getting pushed aside due to other, more recent, travel stories. Since none of us are going anywhere at the moment, it’s the perfect opportunity to move it to the top of my list.
My first visit to Spain was a weekend in Barcelona. Even as short as it was, my friend and I managed to fit in a lot. Lots of sightseeing, lots of great food, lots of good wine, and even lots of shopping.
Here is the Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), just off La Rambla in the heart of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter).
As per usual, I was late to the party in discovering only recently how entertaining Game of Thrones is ― years after the rest of the planet. Now that I’m a fan (better late than never!), and now that I’ve had a week to recover from last Sunday’s Season 5 finale, I thought I’d make a connection between the TV show and travel.
Because Game of Thrones has some awesome filming locations.
It’s filmed in a few places that are on my bucket list (Croatia and Iceland), and in a few places where I’ve already been (Northern Ireland and Spain).
A new location that debuted this past season was the Alcázar in Seville, Spain. It was put to good use standing in for the Water Gardens, the palace of the rulers of Dorne.
Alcázar comes from the Arabic word al-qasr, which means “the castle.”