Category Archives: Postcards

Travels in Spain, Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia 01

“What I saw in Barcelona – Gaudí – was the work of such strength, such faith, of an extraordinary technical capacity, manifested during a whole life of genius…” – Le Corbusier (Swiss Architect)

We had been to Barcelona before but didn’t hesitate for a moment to go again.  It might be the pickpocket capital of Spain, maybe even Europe, but a couple of months earlier we had survived a few days in Naples without any thieving mishaps so felt confident that we could handle ourselves in Barcelona.

We arrived in the afternoon and completely out of character hopped in a taxi to take us the short ride to our accommodation, the budget hotel IBIS in Eixample which claimed to be close to the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Cathedral of the Catalan genius architect Antoni Gaudi.  We were not to be disappointed because it was only a five minute easy stroll away.

After approving our rooms we walked there immediately but couldn’t go inside to visit because it was sold out for the day so we had to satisfy ourselves with a walk around the exterior and then booking some entrance tickets for later in the week.

Sagrada Familia Detail

It was quite pricey to get in but then this is the principal source of fund raising because the long drawn out construction is not supported financially by the National State of Spain, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia, the Province or City of Barcelona or even the Catholic Church (it points out that it already has one Cathedral in Barcelona, why does it need another?)  The only source of income is visitor receipts and construction costs are currently estimated at €1 million a month.  That is a lot of visitors.

Work on the Cathedral began in 1882 and it is due for completion in 2026 and although I say long drawn out and nearly one hundred and fifty years may seem a very long time, to put this into some sort of perspective, you can’t really expect to build a cathedral in just a couple of years – except perhaps for the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City which was built in just two years but, if you ask me, doesn’t really look like a Cathedral in the traditional  sense – so I am not counting it (it’s my blog!)

So just how long does it take to build a Cathedral?

In England York Mister took two hundred and forty-two years, but by comparison St Paul’s in London was rushed up in only thirty-one, Notre Dame in Paris took one hundred and eighty-five years, Seville in Spain one hundred and eighteen years and St Peter’s in Rome one hundred and twenty years and although this might seem like snail’s pace construction all of these were positively rapid compared to Milan at five hundred and seventy-nine years and Cologne in Germany at six hundred and thirty-two years – a shame then you might think that Allied bombers knocked it down in the space of just a few nights during the Second-World-War!

St_Michael's_Cathedral_ruins,_Coventry

I digress here but the bombing story reminded me that the German Luftwaffe similarly destroyed Coventry Cathedral in 1940 in just one bombing raid.  This Cathedral with the third highest spire in England after Salisbury and Norwich had taken sixty years to build between 1373 and 1433 which I suppose you might consider quite quick, but not as rapid as the new Coventry Cathedral which was built in only six years and which, in a national poll in the 1990s, was voted Britain’s favourite twentieth century building.

I remember going there on a school visit in about 1964.

Back now to Barcelona.

So we purchased our entry tickets and went inside into a surreal world of a combination of church and building site with pallets of stone and brick side by side with pews and confessional boxes and we wandered around the great nave and the side chapels through soaring arches that look like giant trees with a fluidity of the design that creates the illusion of fusion, columns and arches melt into a viscous panorama that foams, drips and provides refuge for plants, animals and people and as we stood and admired it I hoped that although it is difficult to get inside the mind of a genius like Gaudi that I might at least be able to understand just a little of what it all meant.

Sagrada Familia 02

As it happens, I am not certain about what I think about Sagrada Familia. It confuses me. It is a piece of Disney World.  Although it was consecrated as a Minor Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 (there are currently one thousand seven hundred and fifty Catholic Minor Basilicas and including the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona has nine) I am unsure if this is a place of worship or a Barcelona theme park.  George Orwell said it was “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” .

When the final stone is set in place, the Sagrada Família will be the world’s tallest church, soaring five hundred and sixty feet into the sky. Second highest (currently first) will be Ulm Cathedral in Germany at five hundred and thirty feet high and Lincoln Cathedral in England (currently second) is five hundred and twenty-five.  It will also be the strangest looking and possibly the most controversial place of worship ever built on such an epic scale. Looking for all the world like a cluster of gigantic stone termites’ nest or perhaps a petrified forest, this hugely ambitious church has confounded architects, critics and historians ever since its unprecedented shape became apparent.

Sagrada Familia Statues

Looking ahead I wonder if after completion in 2026 (maybe?) the tourists can be kept away and it can become a genuine Temple of Worship? Currently it is the second most visited place in Spain after the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Will they ever stop that?  Personally, I doubt it. Currently attendance at Mass at Sagrada Familia requires an invitation, rather like the Queen’s Garden Parties in the UK.

When complete, the Basilica will boast no fewer than eighteen spires – eight have been built so far, twelve representing Christ’s apostles, four the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), one the Blessed Virgin Mary and the tallest, Christ the Saviour

It is a magnificent but ultimately pointless building that I suspect will never achieve its original objective. I preferred the Gothic Cathedral in Barcelona Old Town which we visited a few days later.

Maybe I am just old fashioned and I am reminded of my Dad’s negative reaction to the church in the village where we lived when they started serving afternoon tea and cakes, he was outraged that the Vicar would think about turning a church into a café. It is probably a Starbucks now.

I am getting to be like my Dad but that is not such a bad thing!

Sagrada Familia at Night

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Travels in Spain, The Palm Forest of Elche

Elche Palm Orchard 4

Close by to where Mick and Lindsay live is the city of Elche.  It is the third most populated city in the Community of Valencia (after Valencia and Alicante) and the twentieth largest Spanish city.  I would never have guessed that.  The twentieth largest city in the UK is Nottingham and I have heard of that of course and in USA it is El Paso, Texas which surprised me.  In Australia it is the splendidly named Albury–Wodonga in New South Wales.

The two main reasons for visiting Elche are to buy a pair of shoes (footwear manufacture is the largest industry in the town) or to visit the Palm Forests which are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  No one needed a new pair of shoes today because we had been shopping the day before and been in every shoe shop in La Zenia so today we were visiting the date palm orchards which date way back to the time of the occupation of Iberia by the Moors of North Africa.

In 2000 UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site citing the transfer of landscape and agricultural practices from one culture and continent to another – Moorish North Africa to Christian Europe.

Elche Palm Orchard 3

Currently, in the urban area of Elche there are almost one hundred different orchards containing about seventy-thousand date palms mostly in the east bank of the Rio Vinalopó. This number however does not include other large plantations located around wider urban area and all together the number may be close to a staggering two hundred thousand palms. It is the only palm grove of its type anywhere in Europe, the northernmost of its kind and one the largest in the world outside of North Africa.  Individual specimens of the palm trees can grow to a height of more than one hundred feet and be up to three hundred years old.

For statistical reasons I now digress.  The tallest trees in the World are the Californian Giant Redwood which grow to nearly four hundred feet, in Australia there is a species of Eucalyptus (Mountain Ash) which gets to three hundred and thirty feet and the tallest trees in the UK are the Douglas Fir which by comparison struggles to get to just two hundred feet or so.  The iconic English Oak (which we always think of a tall tree) is left way behind at only seventy feet!

Tallest trees

We arrived in Elche at mid-morning, found a convenient parking place and wandered off towards the palm forest, none of us thought about noting down the name of the street where we had left the car!

Elche Palm Orchard 7

Very quickly we were in the first orchard, a carefully managed public park with winding footpaths and clear direction signs but not very long after that we strayed into a less well managed area with winding dusty paths and not so many direction signs.  Soon it became clear that we were losing our sense of direction and as anyone who has been in a palm forest will know one palm tree looks very much like all the others because there isn’t a great deal of variation in shape or form.

We wandered around a little more getting ever further from our starting point and with realistic hopes of following the same route back rapidly deteriorating and it was at about this point that it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t absolutely certain about where we had started from anyway.

Eventually we came across a busy road and close by a public park where there was an entrance fee to see the palms.  Having just seen about a thousand palms for free I wondered if this was necessary expenditure but we paid up and went inside and we were glad that we did because the gardens were immaculate and there were several interesting palms in there including one known as ‘Imperial Palm’ with seven stems in the shape of a candelabra and estimated to be about one hundred and seventy-five years old . It was named after Elisabeth, the Empress consort of Franz Joseph of Austria, who visited the plantation in 1894.

Palmera Elche

The visit over we made our way to the city centre but finding it to be a modern concrete sort of place with little really to interest us, it seems that most of the historical centre has been demolished and cleared away, we turned our attention back to the issue of finding a way back to the car.

We were still surrounded by a forest of palm trees on all sides so there was quite a bit of guess work involved here and several disagreements about direction and I always get nervous when Kim assumes the role of navigator because this is rarely good news.  I say nothing of course.  As it happened Mick had the keenest sense of direction, overruled all of our panic suggestions and insisted on a route that soon got us back to the car without any further detours.

Elche Palm Orchard 6

Travels in Spain, The Flamenco

Granada Flamenco

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

Flamenco BarcelonaThe Flamenco Dance of Spain

Some pictures that I have picked up along the way, pictures of pictures in bars and restaurants…

Flamenco Andalusia SpainFlamenco Wall Painting

Travels in Spain, Tiles of the Bullfight

Bullfight Tiles 2Bullfight Tiles 1Granada Matador

 

Travels in Spain, Balconies of Granada

Granada Balcony 3

“And thank God for home-sweet things, a green and friendly hill,
And red geraniums aflame upon my window sill.” – Martha Haskell Clark

Granada Balcony 2Granada Balcony 4

More Balconies…

Spain

Malta

Portugal

Naples

Travels in Spain, The City of Granada

Granada Pointless Souvenirs

“Granada! Holy place of the glory of Spain, Your mountains are the white tents of pavilions, Your walls are the circle of a vase of flowers, Your plain a Moorish shawl embroidered with colour, Your towers are palm trees that imprison you” –  José Zorrilla y Moral

We had nice accommodation in Granada, a studio apartment with kitchen and living room.  We liked it and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and then immediately set off into the city in search of something to eat.

Unlike the previous stop in Puerta de Don Fadrique the streets were busy and everywhere was open so there was a lot of choice.  It was mid afternoon by now so we only wanted a snack so we found a tapas bar and then proceeded to order far more food than we really wanted.

We needed to walk it off so after we had finished and settled up we set off towards the Alhambra Palace and a viewing point called the Mirador directly adjacent.

Alhambra Granada

After a gentle stroll along the banks of the Rio Biera the road turned sharp left with signposts to the viewing platform which involved a much steeper climb than we had really anticipated when we had set out.  The road seemed to go on forever and become steeper and steeper by the step.  The smart people zoomed past on the shuttle buses that were taking passengers to the top but without a ticket we just had to continue slogging away.

It was one of those climbs when every so often you think you are there but you are not, hopes are dashed and another set of steps appears ahead and then another dog-leg to tease and to taunt.

Eventually however we were at the top, there was nowhere else to climb and there was a welcoming bar and some vacant tables.  Hardly surprising really because the prices were as high as the elevation but to be fair we were paying not only for the beer and wine but the magnificent view as well and we sat and looked out over the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the south and in the foreground the Alhambra Palace and the hundreds of visitors climbing around the walls.  Busy because with three million visitors a year it claims to be the most visited site in Spain.

The top ten most visited are the Alhambra, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Mosque at Cordoba, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos Cathedral, the Alcazar of Segovia, Roman Theatre at Merida, Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have visited them all except for the Guggenheim.

Granada Alahbra Face

The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were becoming increasingly subject to the Christian Kings of Castile.  After the final expulsion of the Moors and being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, the buildings occupied by squatters, the Alhambra was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, who carried out retaliatory destruction of the site.

Our original plan was to visit the Palace but due to some sloppy travel planning on my part this wasn’t going to be possible this time.  It seems the place is so popular and so busy that during the peak season it is necessary to book tickets at least three months in advance and when I eventually got around to doing it I had left it too late.  Never mind, on the plus side it means we may need to back.

Alhabra from the Mirador

So for this time anyway we had to satisfy ourselves with a wonderful view of the exterior which I have to say provided a significant amount of compensation. When we had finished our drinks and had stopped drooling over the view we made our way back down into the city which thankfully was a lot easier than the climb up.

We sat for an hour or so now and enjoyed the accommodation before going back into the city for evening meal. We didn’t go far, just into the next street where there was a good choice of restaurants, using the selection criteria of looking at what other people were eating and spotting a man with a very nice steak we chose the first one that we came to and enjoyed a simple meal and a jug of house wine.

We liked Granada and we looked forward to a full day in the city tomorrow.

Granada Tapas

Travels in Spain, Rojales to Granada

Road to Granada

The sun was shining when we left the Spanish east coast town of Rojales just south of Alicante in the Province of Murcia.  It is close to sea level so it didn’t occur to me to take a rain coat or even a pullover in the event that it might later turn cooler as we drove inland and into the mountains.

We were in Spain and the sun always shines in Spain – doesn’t it?

We were driving inland towards Andalusia on the way to the city of Granada and just a few miles after we left the clouds began to build and the temperature began to drop. Kim worried about this and concerned for my welfare asked if I needed to stop and put on something warm. I shivered but didn’t own up to not packing anything that might usefully be described as warm so this wasn’t an option. She pulled a cardigan out of her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. My sister, Lindsay did the same.  I tried to look brave.

Shortly after bypassing the city of Murcia there was some improvement and we took a planned detour through the Province of the same name towards Andalusia and towards the small town of Puerta de Don Fadrique which is a small village that makes the extravagant claim to be the prettiest in Spain.

Puebla de Don Fadrique 01

As it happens I have been to a number of self-proclaimed prettiest villages in Spain so I was interested to see how this one compared.

Santillana del Mar in Cantabria is a picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain along with Cudillero, Almagro, Ronda, Trujillo and Alcala de Henares.  This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain in 1938 (“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”) although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgment.  Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!

The approach to Puebla de Don Fadrique was indeed stunning set against the backdrop of the Sagra mountain range and we continued to climb to three and a half thousand feet before eventually arriving in the town.  As we parked the car I couldn’t help noticing that everyone was wearing pullovers and coats.  By necessity (not having a pullover or a coat) I declared it warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves!

It was time for refreshment but the first café was closed and so was the second and the third.  The whole place was completely desolate as though there had been a nuclear accident and the place had been abandoned in a dreadful hurry.

Puebla de Don Fadrique 04

Everywhere was shuttered and closed which led me to speculate that maybe Puebla de Don Fadrique was suffering from a collective hangover from a Festival the day before, which is usually just my luck,  or maybe it just doesn’t open on a Monday.

It was a pretty little place for sure, whitewashed houses and black metal grills in the Andalusian style but without people it lacked any sort of vibrancy or interest, no bars, no restaurants and no shops.  We walked through the streets half in anticipation and half in disappointment and made our way back to the car and suddenly there was signs of life as a group of men in coats and pullovers were sitting at a street corner debating the big issues of the day and at the end of a street about a hundred yards away we finally spotted a bar that was open.

Puebla de Don Fadrique 03

So we made our way towards it, alarmed the owner by sitting down and ordering a coffee and then slightly bemused by all this left and drove out of the village and resumed our journey towards Granada.

As we drove further west the weather continued to rapidly deteriorate.  Ahead of us we could just about make out the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at eleven and a half thousand feet the highest in Spain and the third highest in Europe after the Caucasus and the Alps.  But the storm clouds were gathering, the sky turned black and it started to rain.  The temperature sank like a stone and I began to plan my first task in Granada, to find a shop to buy a coat.  And I am not a great shopper!

A few miles out of the city we passed through the wet weather front and the mercury and my spirits began to rise once more and by the time we reached our destination I was pleased to see people wandering around in tee-shirts and short sleeves.  Almost effortlessly we found an underground car park located conveniently next to a supermarket and just a couple of hundred yards from our accommodation.

We found it easily and after we had declared it completely satisfactory and had settled in we set off to find somewhere for late lunch and a bit of a stroll.

More Attractive Towns and Villages in Europe

Puebla de Don Fadrique 02