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Through My Lens: Puerta del Sol

Christmas Lights Sol

Just in case I am giving you the impression that only Paris knows how to dress for Christmas, here is a photo I took in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in November 2010. This is the famous Tio Pepe neon sign framed by a towering Christmas tree of lights.

Camino de Santiago de Compostela

My cousin and his wife completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela today. They started their walk 36 days ago in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France.

The Way of St. James has been a major pilgrimage route for Christians since the Middle Ages. There are other Camino routes in addition to the 800-km way across northern Spain that my cousins chose to walk. One of them starts in Granada, which is where I took this photo. The yellow scallop and arrow are a way marker to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is Spanish for Saint James. In France, scallops are known as coquilles Saint-Jacques (Saint James’ shells).

Camino

Happy Easter!

Interior, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, Madrid, November 2010

Santa María la Real de La Almudena, Madrid, November 2010

Through My Lens: Iglesia de la Vera Cruz

Vera Cruz

For Palm Sunday, I’m posting a photo of Iglesia de la Vera Cruz (Church of the True Cross), which is located in Segovia. This church is one of the most extraordinary churches I’ve ever set foot in.

(But then, I could say that about Córdoba’s Mezquita. Or Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família. Why don’t I just put it out there that Spain does churches in a way all its own?)

Iglesia de la Vera Cruz is a Romanesque church that was built by the Knights Templar and consecrated in 1208. Its name comes from the reason for its existence: to house a fragment of the True Cross ― the cross on which Christ was crucified. The relic has since been moved to another church in another town.

What’s so curious about this church is its twelve-sided (that’s dodecagonal to the geometry nerds among us) shape. In the centre is a two-storey chapel, called an edículo, accessible by twin staircases. The lower level of this chapel has four arches corresponding to the four cardinal directions of north, east, south, west, and the upper level contains an altar. The church is said to be modelled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (which is where, according to legend, the True Cross was found).

It’s not a big church and its unique design allowed the knights to come in on horseback, form a circle around the chapel in the centre, and hold vigil over the relic.

Through My Lens: Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

Cathedral of Córdoba

Last Sunday, I promised you a photo of the nave of Córdoba’s Mezquita. Here it is, for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

Through My Lens: Mezquita de Córdoba

Mezquita

For the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the interior of the Mezquita de Córdoba. The Mezquita is a cathedral built inside a mosque built on top of a church. Given that back-and-forth heritage, it’s often called the Mezquitacatedral de Córdoba (the MosqueCathedral of Córdoba).

The original church, the Basilica of Saint Vincent, was built by the Visigoths in the sixth century. When the Moors arrived in Córdoba in the late eighth century, they built a mosque on top of that basilica. The main prayer hall of the Mezquita (shown in this photo) is filled with an impressive forest of columns supporting 400 red-and-white double arches. Even today, it is one of the largest mosques in the world.

After the Reconquista (reconquest) of Córdoba in 1236 by the northern Christian kingdoms, the mosque was reconsecrated as a Christian church. Eventually, the minaret was turned into a bell tower and a Renaissance cathedral nave was built in the middle of the mosque. Stay tuned ― next Sunday I’ll post a photo of that nave.

Through My Lens: La Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

For the Third Sunday of Lent, we’re moving on to Barcelona.

Most European cathedrals were built centuries ago. The cornerstone of this one, Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, was laid a mere 131 years ago in 1882. Except for a stoppage during the Spanish Civil War, construction has continued ever since. The basilica is the final work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, the face of Modernisme, who spent the last decades of his life working on the structure.

When finished (estimated to be in about 15 years), La Sagrada Família will have 18 spires and will be the tallest cathedral in the world. There will be three facades, two of which have already been completed: the Nativity façade and the Passion façade. The Passion façade, which faces west, was sculpted by Josep Maria Subirachs and is particularly moving.

I visited La Sagrada Família with a friend in October 2001. After we left what is essentially the largest construction site either of us had ever seen, we took the metro back to our hotel. Sitting across from us was one of the cathedral’s stone workers, covered in white dust, heading home after his work day. I marvelled at the thought of spending your entire career working on one project. And I felt honoured to be riding the metro with an old-school master craftsman.

Through My Lens: Cathedral of Ávila

Ávila Cathedral

It’s the Second Sunday of Lent, and we’re still in Ávila. Today’s photo is of the Cathedral of Ávila, which, like the Basilica de San Vicente I showed you last week, was also built in both Romanesque and Gothic styles. What’s unique about this church is that its apse forms one of the 88 towers of the medieval city walls encircling the old town of Ávila. I took this photo from the top of those ramparts in November 2010.

Through My Lens: Basilica de San Vicente

Here we are again in the Season of Lent. Last year for Lent, I took you on a tour of Parisian churches. This year, I’m going to post a few photos of some of the magnificent churches I’ve seen in Spain.

For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of Basilica de San Vicente in Ávila, a city in Castile and León, which is in northern Spain. This Romanesque–Gothic basilica dates back to the twelfth century.

The church was built to the memory of three martyrs: Saint Vincent and his sisters, Saint Sabina and Saint Cristela. They were killed in 303 by order of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Inside the church is Saint Vincent’s tomb, which is covered with intricate and detailed bas-reliefs of the torture and execution of the three siblings. They’re rather, er, graphic, but incredibly fascinating.

San Vicente

Christmas Markets

A co-worker of mine went to the Czech Republic earlier this month. When I found out where she was going for her holidays, my eyes lit up.

“The Czech Republic?!” I said. “Are you going to the Christmas markets?”

She smiled. “Of course!” she said.

Christmas Market, Prague

Christmas Market, Prague

She explained that the main purpose of the trip was to visit her grandmother who lived somewhere out in the Czech countryside, but her family also had plans to stop off in Prague, and were going to make a special trip to Nuremberg, Germany, just to see its Christmas market.

Christmas markets have been around since the Middle Ages. They are common throughout Western Europe and are especially prevalent in Central Europe. In recent years, they’ve been popping up all over England and North America, too. Common elements include chalet-like stalls set up in town squares, which sell handicrafts, toys, Christmas ornaments, lots of tasty treats, and the ubiquitous Glühwein (mulled wine).

I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Christmas markets, but a couple of years ago when I knew I would be spending the winter in Paris, I was determined to experience as many as I could.

The first Christmas market I came across that winter was unexpected, as it was mid-November and Christmas was far from my mind. I was in Seville, Spain. The market was in the square near the massive cathedral, and contained stall after stall selling wooden nativities. The nativities were works of art, truly. Each figure was sold separately and cost far more euros than I had to spend.

In Madrid, the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor dates back to 1860. It too was filled with stalls selling wooden nativity figures.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Steps away from Plaza Mayor, I stumbled across a smaller market in Plaza Santa Cruz with a more light-hearted carnival atmosphere. Its stalls were selling costumes, wigs, and accessories for Dia de los Santos Inocentes on December 28. (This is the Spanish equivalent to our April Fool’s Day, though its origins are rather sombre: the day commemorates the massacres of the “Holy Innocents” ― the children murdered by Herod in his search for the newborn king the wise men had told him about.)

Plaza Santa Cruz, Madrid

Plaza Santa Cruz, Madrid

In Paris, there are Marchés de Noël in almost every arrondissement. I made it to three. The market at Trocadéro is probably the most picturesque as it’s situated across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. It also has a popular skating rink.

Trocadéro, Paris

Trocadéro, Paris

Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a much smaller market, with stalls nestled along Boulevard Saint-Germain and around the church of Saint-Germain-des- Prés.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

The market along Avenue des Champs-Elysées is massive, and runs all the way from the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde to the Franklin D. Roosevelt métro station. It consists of several blocks of stalls selling vin chaud, crêpes, chocolate, sausages, and all sorts of handicrafts. Every block or so there was a heater where you could warm your hands. We walked the entire length of this market on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Market stalls along the Champs-Elysées, Paris

Christmas market stalls along the Champs-Elysées, Paris

All the chocolate you could wish for along the Champs-Elysées, Paris

All the chocolate you could wish for along the Champs-Elysées, Paris

Although Paris is a magical time to be in December, the Christmas markets I was most excited about seeing were in the Czech Republic. I was thrilled to see the Old Town Square of Prague once again, but I could never have imagined how pretty it would look at Christmastime.

Christmas Market, Old Town Square, Prague

Christmas Market, Old Town Square, Prague

The lights were impressive, and there was an enormous Christmas tree as well as a nativity, a stage where children were singing Christmas carols, and hundreds of red-roofed stalls selling food and toys and ornaments.

Old Town Square with the Old Town Hall and St. Nicholas Church behind

Old Town Square with the Old Town Hall and St. Nicholas Church behind

Children singing carols

Children singing carols

I enjoyed a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― and later a massive slab of spit-roasted ham. To keep warm, I bought mug after mug of Glühwein ― in Czech, it’s called svařené víno. There was another, smaller market in Prague’s Wenceslas Square with much of the same, although not as prettily lit.

Trdelník stall

Trdelník stall

Trdelník baking over hot coals

Trdelník baking over hot coals

Hams roasting on spits

Hams roasting on spits

The next day, I travelled to Český Krumlov. Its small, intimate Christmas market had the feeling of a neighbourhood bazaar, with local artisans selling their handiwork, and the local school putting on a Christmas concert after dark.

Old Town Square, Český Krumlov

Old Town Square, Český Krumlov

Keeping warm in Old Town Square, Český Krumlov

Keeping warm in Old Town Square, Český Krumlov

I don’t know if I will ever make it to Nuremberg, the granddaddy of all Christmas markets ― my co-worker said there were over 200 stalls there ― but, even so, seeing the Spanish, French, and Czech Christmas markets was something already. If you need an excuse to visit Europe in December (seriously? who ever needs an excuse to go to Europe?), I highly recommend going for the Christmas markets.

Christmas trees and Church of Our Lady before Týn, Prague

Christmas trees and Church of Our Lady before Týn, Prague