Category Archives: World Heritage

Travels in Spain, Catalonia – A New State for Europe

Catalonia Ceramic Tile Map

“… Spain, so long obsessed with the unity of authority, will loosen itself one day into a federal state… this redistribution of its powers will prove to be the most distinctly Spanish contribution to the progress of the nation states.” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain

I had been to Catalonia before but on that occasion without knowing as much as I do now I had a lot to learn.  That within the Spanish Constitution it is defined as a ‘Nationality’ and enjoys significant regional autonomy it has its own distinct language and is culturally very different to the Spain of Castile.  There is no mention here of El Cid or Don Quixote but rather of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali and in 2012 the Catalan parliament even banned the iconic Spanish sport of bull fighting.

Catalan Flag Palau De La Musica

A bit of quick history – Catalonia was created by Charlemagne as a buffer state to protect the northern Frankish Empire from the threat of further northern expansion by the Moors and like all buffer states that has meant a turbulent history, squeezed between more powerful neighbours, its borders frequently rearranged, dismantled, absorbed and passed back and forth like a baton in a relay race depending upon the prevailing balance of power.

In 1492 Catholic Spain was united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the new power based in Madrid favoured Seville and Cadiz over Catalonia for monopoly of the New World trade routes and sea there power gradually declined, later there was conflict with Madrid again during the Thirty Year’s War and then The War of The Spanish Succession when Catalonia seemed to have an unfortunate tendency to back the losing side and then suffer the inevitable consequences when it came to peace and settlement.

During and after the Spanish Civil War  Catalonia was one of the last Republican and Socialist areas to fall to the Nationalists of General Franco and then paid the price through years of recriminations, subjugation and suppression of its language and culture as the fascist government in Madrid set out to stamp the authority of Castile on its troublesome region.

Barcelona Casa Battlo Chimneys

The most recent conflict came  very recently.  A controversial independence referendum was held in October 2017, declared illegal one month later and suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain because it breached the 1978 Constitution. In October, the Court suspended the Catalan Parliament after President Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence.

In response the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Executive Council of Catalonia, dissolving the Parliament of Catalonia. The referendum led to the arrests of several pro-independence politicians and Puigdemont fled into exile in Belgium.

Today the concept of independent Catalonia is not recognized or supported by the European Union or the international community, which regards the region as an integral part of the Kingdom of Spain.

Sagrada Familia Statues

Everywhere in Barcelona there are a lot of buildings draped with the red and gold flag of Catalonia, some already anticipating a successful transition to independence and rather prematurely announcing themselves as ‘A New State for Europe’. Everywhere there are Catalan flags and symbols, Catalan always comes first in guide books and menus, shops don’t sell King Felipe souvenirs, on official guides the flag of Spain is almost always defaced and the away team colours of FC Barcelona are the red and gold of Catalonia.

Here in Barcelona the hotel staff told me that they considered themselves to be Catalan first and Spanish second although they feared that any referendum for independence would ultimately fail because of the inherent conservatism of the older generation and because, whatever the outcome of a vote, Madrid would simply never allow it.

Barcelona Sea Front Symbol of City

I have to conclude that Catalonia certainly doesn’t feel like the classic Spain of Castile but then again Andalusia doesn’t actually feel like the classic Spain of Castile either. I have now visited fifteen of the seventeen Autonomous Communities and I would find it very difficult to choose one that I might then suggest is most representative of the usual English vision and expectation of Spain.  Castile must come close, or perhaps Valencia or even Extremadura, certainly not Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria or the Basque Country and I am yet to travel to La Rioja or Navarre so cannot offer an opinion on these.

As well as history, economics is a major driving force behind the independence movement because Catalonia is one of the most prosperous of the Spanish Communities and although it enjoys considerable autonomy it resents contributing almost 20% of revenues paid to Madrid and feels hard done by in terms of inward investment in their region in return.

It is the sixth largest region, has the sixth largest coastline and is sixth largest by population density (second overall after Andalusia).  If it were to achieve independence it would be the twelfth smallest state in Europe just slightly larger than Belgium but a bit smaller than the Netherlands, it would have ninety of Spain’s five hundred and fifty blue flag beaches (16%) and six of its forty-four World Heritage sites (14%).

This is me with two life size figures dressed in Catalan National Costume…

Catalan National Dress and Independence

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Travels in Spain, Alternative Images of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Barcelona Souvenir Tee ShirtBarcelona Tee Shirt

From the inevitable Sagrada Familia Gift Shop!

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

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

A Previous Visit to Morocco

Epcot World Showcase

The Disney Web Site introduces Morocco like this: “A realistic Koutoubia Minaret leads the way into this faraway land of traditional belly dancers, intricate Moroccan architecture and swirling mosaics made by native craftsmen. The Morocco Pavilion has 2 fascinating sections: the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and the Medina (old city). Discover a bustling plaza with a variety of shops and be on the lookout for some familiar Arabian Disney friends throughout the day.”

Read the Full Story…

Travels in Spain, The Moroccan Tea Gardens at Crevillent

Moroccan Tea Garden 09

““Do you like that?” I’ll say and she’ll look at me as if I’m mad.  That!?” She’ll say, “No, it’s hideous” “Then why on earth,” I always want to say, “did you walk all the way over there to touch it?”  but of course…I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say…  it doesn’t pay, so I say nothing.”  Bill Bryson – ‘Notes From a Small Island’

In several previous travels to Alicante and the east coast of Spain we had visited much of the coast and the obvious places to go and see so today we set out to do something different.

I didn’t really have shopping at the top of my travel itinerary but you have to give and take sometimes and Kim and Lindsay wanted to go and look at sparkly things so we spent the morning at a modern mall at the town of La Zenia. I didn’t do a lot of shopping I have to say, just wandered about a bit and found somewhere for a drink as the girls enjoyed a frantic two hours or so in the shoe shops.

Later that day we eventually did something quite different. Mick and Lindsay knew of a secret place at the foot of the mountains inland, Moroccan Tea gardens called Carmen del Campillo the ‘Casa Morisca’. This it turned out is an unexpected and enchanting place with echoes reminiscent of Moorish Spain.

Moroccan Tea Garden 10

The description Moors derives from the Latin Mauri, a name for the Berber tribes living in Roman Mauretania, modern day Algeria and Morocco.  It has no ethnographic meaning but can be used to refer to all Muslims, Berber or Arab, who over a thousand years ago travelled north out of Africa and colonised the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors arrived in Iberia in the year 711 and began a period of history which would give Spain a different and unique history to the rest of Europe as the entire region adapted to a new religion, language and culture.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region.

They expanded and improved Roman irrigation systems to help develop a strong agricultural sector.  After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. They introduced many new crops including the orange, lemon, peach, apricot, fig and pomegranate as well as saffron, sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice all of which remain some of Spain’s main products today.

The terraces on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia and Murcia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Alcoy Spain The Moors Parade

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca or Costa Calida but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia. The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of up to five hundred fruits.

The Moroccan Tea Gardens are difficult to find and involved a long drive along a dusty track until we arrived at what seems at first sight to be an oasis in a thirsty plain.  Getting in is easy enough but I worried about getting out again when the iron gate was closed firmly behind us with a firm jailhouse rattle.

Moroccan Tea Garden 06

One inside the whole place is a rapturous assault on the senses, the sights, smells and sounds of Morocco, brightly painted walls and decoration, the aroma of burning incense and the music of North Africa.

Terracotta pots with effervescent geraniums and boiling blooms.  The garden weaving intricately and effortlessly through the house, making it an indoor and outdoor experience all at the same time. The house consists of a labyrinth of rooms that open onto open balconies, sun-bleached decks and private terraces that lead directly to the rooftops.  The objective of this tea house is to encourage tranquillity and relaxation and as afternoon slipped into evening it was illuminated with Islamic lamps and traditional wood burning fireplaces in every other room.

After we had investigated the house and gardens we found a table and ordered tea and sweet pastries and waited for the sun to disappear behind the mountain range, the Serra de Crevillent and when it had gone and we felt tranquil and relaxed we left the little piece of Morocco in Spain and made our way back to Rojales and the coast.

The blue of the sky and the terracotta of the earth…

Moroccan Tea Garden 07

Travels in Spain, Guadix and the Cave Houses

Guadix and Sierra Nevada

Not a great picture – it was on the wall of a bar and the lighting was poor but still better than any picture that I could get of Guadix!

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –  George Orwell

It didn’t take long to reach Guadix, it is only a few miles east of Granada and we arrived there about at lunch time and instead of going straight to the city centre we took a detour into a neighbouring village in search of something to eat.

We were in a coach trip tourist sort of place lined with shops selling local earthenware and pottery but being just out of high season there weren’t any tourists there today, the shops were empty and we found a bar/restaurant with outside tables and busy with local people, which is always a good sign, so we selected a spot on the pavement in the sunshine and ordered a small selection of tapas.

The owner must have thought that we looked under-nourished because the food just kept turning up, we thought that we had ordered a light lunch but very soon the table was in danger of collapsing under the weight of rustic tapas and plates of fine food. It was rude not to eat it all but this took us some time and after we had finished our glutinous challenge we settled up and continued on our way.

Guadix Street

Guadix was quiet, almost as quiet as Puerta de Don Fadrique and we needn’t have worried in advance about car parking because the streets were empty, the shops were closed and there was almost no one about.  We found the hotel easily enough, checked in, unpacked only what we needed for an overnight stay and then went back out into the centre.

I liked it, it wasn’t Trujillo in Extremadura or Almagro or Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha, it wasn’t Santillana del Mar in Cantabria but it was authentic and rustic, Spanish and Andalusian and I was glad that we had chosen to spend some time here.

We walked around the centre, along the banks of the crusty dried-up river bed and through some lush public parks but in late afternoon there was never much sign of life.  I looked for a shop to buy some wine but I had forgotten my corkscrew key-ring thingy that I can smuggle through airport security and there were no screw cap bottles anywhere in my price range so I was forced to buy a carton of Don Simon Vino Tinto which is really cheap and tastes just the same.

The product manufacturers make this extraordinary claim…  “Don Simon Vino Tinto Wine offers an expertly and exquisitely manufactured wine with fruity aroma; light fruit flavour, crisp acidity, light body and dry, tart finish. Good for every occasion. Best when served chilled. It looks as good as it tastes.” 

No grape variety information or expert tasting tips and in truth it is the sort of wine that at about 1.50 a litre, if you have got some left over you don’t mind pouring down the sink when you leave if you are not too concerned about environmental damage or taking the risk of destroying the hotel plumbing system.

Don Simon wine in a carton

We sat for a while in the lonely Plaza Mayor which was abandoned and quiet but decided anyway to return later for evening meal.  Two hours after it was transformed, the square was busy and there was fierce competition for tables but we swooped on one and the owner talked us into a Menu Del Dia which, as it turned out was a brilliant bit of salesmanship by him although not a brilliant decision on our part, but we had a hearty meal which filled us up including a truly enormous portion of Tiramasu for sweet for Lindsay which arrived just as she was explaining her planned dieting schedule.

I liked Granada and I liked Guadix, two completely different places which all adds to the richness and diversity of Spain and keeps me wanting to go back again and again.

The following morning we had a good breakfast at the hotel and we cleaned them out almost completely of tomato for the tosta and then we checked out and drove a short distance to the cave houses.

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This is the main reason for visiting Guadix.  It is like Bedrock and the Flintstones.  People still live in caves.

People still live in caves!

Just outside of the City old town there is a community of residents who cling to and persevere with the old ways which includes digging a hole in the limestone cliffs and then setting up home inside.  Not just any old cave however and today the mountain homes have brick façade and all of the modern home conveniences inside.

After a walk to the top of the village to an observation platform and then down again a man asked  us in to his cave home and invited us to look around.  People in Andalusia used to live in cave houses because they are cool in summer and warm in winter and they are cheap to build.  Some people, like those here in Guadix still do!

We spent an hour or so investigating the intriguing village and then we left and set off back east towards Rojales and the Mediterranean coast.

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