Tag Archives: World Heritage

Corfu and the Achilleion Palace

Achilleion 04

In the afternoon we visited the Achilleion at Gastouri, squeezed in between Perama and Benitses.  It is a museum now but was once a summer Palace built in 1890 by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was a curious woman obsessed with the classical Homeric hero Achilles and with all things beautiful (including herself by all accounts).

The Palace with the neoclassical Greek statues that surround it is a monument to platonic romanticism and escapism and is filled with paintings and statues of the tragic hero Achilles, both in the main hall and in the gardens, depicting heroic struggles scenes of the Trojan War.

The dazzling white Palace has a wedding cake like appearance and the beautiful Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hill crests and valleys and the azure blue Ionian Sea.

I had visited before of course and this was the Palace in 1984…

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The centre piece of the gardens is a marble statue on a high pedestal of the mortally wounded Achilles stripped of body armour and heroic bravado and wearing only a simple cloth and an elaborate Greek hoplite helmet.  This statue was fashioned by German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter and the hero is  without rank or status and seems notably human though tragic as he is forever trying despairingly to pull the poisoned arrow shot by Paris from his unfortunate heel.

His classically depicted face is full of pain and he gazes skyward as if to seek help from Olympus.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology when Achilles was a baby it was foretold that he would die young. To prevent this his mother Thetis took him to the River Styx which was said to offer powers of invulnerability and dipped his whole body into the water, however, as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river and was therefore tragically vulnerable.  I have always thought of this to be rather careless.

Dying Achilles

Oddly today there was no arrow on the statue, it seems to have been removed, maybe stolen or perhaps for preservation and repairs, it was certainly there in 1984…

Achilles 1984

and in the souvenir tile that I bought several years later, on the island of Santorini if I remember correctly…

Achilles

In contrast to the painful death of Achilles at the great staircase in the main hall is a giant painting of the triumphant warrior full of pride.  Dressed in full royal military regalia and erect on his racing chariot he pulls the lifeless body of Hector of Troy in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the City.

The Achilleion must have been an idyllic holiday home but in 1898 at the age of sixty the Empress was assassinated when she was stabbed by an anarchist whilst walking in a park in Geneva, Switzerland.  After her death the palace was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who also liked to take summer holidays on Corfu and later, after World-War One it was acquired by the Greek State who converted it into a museum.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

It is a beautiful place with grand sweeping gardens befitting royal ownership and we enjoyed the visit and even went back later to see the sunset from the Kaiser’s chair which is an area at the highest point in the gardens where Wilhelm would go in the evening to enjoy the end of the day.

On the way out we passed Kaiser’s Bridge which is just two stumps of brickwork now but was originally built for the Kaiser so that he could leave his yacht and walk to his palace without crossing the road. How self-indulgent was that?  The road can hardly have been busy or dangerous in 1900!

Two stumps of brickwork now because in 1942 it was ironically blown up by the occupying German troops because it was too low for their tanks to pass below.

Kaiser's Bridge

And so we returned to Kalami and our short holiday was over, we packed our bags and cleaned the apartment, I always like to clean an apartment in case we get a bad reputation as untidy guests and then inevitably we returned to the same beach side taverna for a final meal.  It had been a very good week, beaches, sunshine, long walks, a boat ride and a lot of history.  Corfu remains one of my favourite places in Greece and all of Europe.

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Corfu and the Village of Benitses

“Marvellous things happen to one in Greece – marvellous good things which can happen to one nowhere else on earth”, Henry Miller – The Colossus of Maroussi

Benitses Postcard

We continued our tour around the island by driving south of Corfu Town to some of the early holiday destinations on the island.

We quickly left the rugged mountainous of the north east where the bare granite slopes of Mount Pantokrator rise steeply before plunging dramatically into the sea to where, although only a few miles away, the flat and sandy south east where tall cypresses march in columns down green fertile slopes to the shore.

In 1984 I stayed in the village of Perama at a modern hotel complex called the Aelos Beach Hotel which was only a short distance from the main town.    The hotel was an unattractive concrete structure with a main building with restaurant, bar and shops and the accommodation was in a string of bedroom blocks that were located amongst pretty bougainvillea shrubs in the large hotel gardens.  We drove past it today and it is now a modern beach resort, very up-market and most likely beyond my budget.

Lots of visitors get drawn to Perama now because this is where the Durrell family lived in the 1930s.

The Durrells

We didn’t stop because we were heading for the next village of Benitses.

In the 1980s Corfu was expanding rapidly as a tourist destination and was acquiring an uneviable reputation as a party island and magnet for unruly British tourists on boozy Club 18-30 holidays.   They were drawn in the main to the hedonistic town of Benitses which was well known for heavy drinking, beach parties, wild behaviour and street fighting.  There was a story at the time that even the island police were frightened to go in there after dark but I am not sure if this was really true.

In 1984 we drove straight through, not daring to stop but at ten o’clock in the morning it was still recovering from the night before and didn’t live up to its dangerous reputation at all, no dead bodies or burnt out cars and we went through entirely without incident on our way to the north of the island.

Benitses 01

Over the next twenty years or so the locals who lived in the village grew tired of its  reputation and ill-disciplined guests and made a determined effort to throw off its bad ill-repute.  Benitses set about reinventing itself with the addition of a swanky marina, up-market hotels and a string of classy bars and tavernas.  The rowdy youngsters were carefully redirected to Kavos in the the far south of the island where they were kept as far away as possible from families and the mostly well behaved.

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Kavos must have been delighted because in a 2017 survey it was in the top ten of European destinations that are spoiled by boozy Brits.  The others (in no particular order) were Ayia Napa in Cyprus; Red Sea resorts in Bulgaria; Barcelona, Magaluf, Barcelona and Benidorm in Spain; Malia in Crete, Riga in Latvia and Hvar in Croatia.  Such surveys make me ashamed to be British.

In 1984 I confess that we contributed to this a little bit and this I my Mum after way too much local retsina wine and most likely a glass or two of ouzo as well…

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I am happy to report that things are quite different today in Benitses and we had no fear of parking the car and taking a stroll along the waterfront next to the marina and the thin shingle beach before stopping for mid-morning coffee.

And that could have been it, we were ready to leave and move on but we spotted a half-hidden sign pointing to the old village so we decided to explore a little.

Benitses it turns out has a long and interesting history stretching all the way back to the Roman occupation two thousand years ago and we took the narrow path that climbed into a lush green valley with interesting buildings and intriguing lanes and as far as the village church basking in the sunshine at the very centre.

Some scholars suggest that Corfu is the setting for the William Shakespeare play The Tempest.  He did, after all, go missing for a long time and presumed travelling in Italy and the Adriatic so this is not completely unlikely and the path took us through an olive grove with gnarled black trunks twisting away like Chubby Checker and each with a knotted witch hiding in the branches and all rather like walking through Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Can you spot the white faced witch…

Benitses 08

I was glad that we had stopped off in Benitses and had found it so delightful and hospitable, it is always good to have previous prejudices and misunderstandings corrected. I am no longer going to tell stories about fighting and boozing in the streets of Benitses but rather about charming flower fringed streets, local people pleased to welcome us and an enchanting and polite seaside resort and village.

We left Benitses and made the short journey to the nearby Achilleion Palace.

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A Walk Through Corfu Town

Corfu Town 18

Outside and around the church there were old fashioned stores selling various cheap cards or slightly more expensive pieces of pressed aluminium each with a picture of a part of the body.

The explanation is that if you have a bad knee then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and then leave it there securely fastened in bunches to railings and picture frames so that God or Jesus or whoever doesn’t just forget about it seconds after you have gone.

In return for this service it is the custom to light a candle and leave it flickering at the door.  Six foot candles were burning away with such intensity it might have been what it was like to be caught in the middle of the Great Fire of London.  It all looked rather dangerous to me but there were men on hand whose job it was to extinguish the flames as soon as the worshipper that had left it there was an appropriate distance away down the street and then whisk the unburned portion away for immediate recycling and to cut down and sell later to another pilgrim!

Corfu Town 15

Emerging from the shady streets back into the sunshine we passed the Esplanade, once the exclusive place for nobles and important residents and then the cricket pitch, which looked lush and green and rather out of place in this dry dusty town and is a quirky legacy of fifty years of British rule from 1814 to 1864 and where matches are still played today.

I don’t suppose many people would expect to find cricket being played in Greece but it was introduced to Corfu in 1823 when a match was played between the British Navy and the local Army garrison. The Hellenic Cricket Federation was founded a hundred and seventy years later in 1996 when Greece became a member of the European Cricket Council and an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council.  There are now twenty-one cricket clubs in Greece, thirteen of which are based in Corfu and Greece competes annually in the European Cricket Championship.

Never mind Captain Cook or Clive of India or Cecil Rhodes, it seems to me that Cricket is probably the most important legacy of the British Empire.  Currently 104 of 193 World Countries have some sort of affiliation to the International Cricket Council. For some reason that I cannot explain there are 211 football countries (?) affiliated to FIFA.  There are about twenty countries that play the pointless game of US Rounders  Baseball.

I certainly wouldn’t park my car that close to the boundary especially in a T20 match…

Corfu Town 03

Close to the harbour we completed our visit to Corfu town with a look inside the old fortress where we wandered around the lower levels where, to be honest there wasn’t a lot to see because seventy- five years ago the German army destroyed most of it to celebrate the end of their occupation of the island.

So then we tackled the long climb to the top where there were some impressive views of the town, the island and the sea but the weather was beginning to change and from out of nowhere a strong wind whipped up the dust and started to rattle the pavement furniture so we left, crossed the canal moat and head once more to the centre of the town where we passed a memorial to the two thousand Jews of Corfu who were deported from the island during the Nazi occupation.

Jewish memorial Corfu Town

Everywhere in Europe from Iberia to the Baltic to the Balkans we stumble across these sad stories.  In June 1944 the Corfiot Jews were told to present themselves the next morning at the old Fort. When they heard the ultimatum, some escaped to the countryside but most did as they had been told.  There, the Nazis forced them to hand over their possessions and subsequently they were led to the prison inside the Fortress.

The incarceration at the jail of the castle, under horrible conditions and without rudimentary amenities lasted for some time until finally they were transported to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.

Out of the two thousand that were forced to leave Corfu only one hundred and twenty eventually returned.  Let me say that again.  Out of the two thousand that were forced to leave Corfu only one hundred and twenty eventually returned.  I love Europe, I love being a European but when it comes to war and genocide, Europe has a lot to answer for.

It is facts like these that can make me feel temporarily uncomfortable as we nonchalantly drift through history in sandals and shorts enjoying our holidays and our travels, stopping for a coffee or a beer or a cocktail but then occasionally uncovering unpleasant pieces of information that serve to remind that times were not always so good.  Let us hope that we learn from history this time because we haven’t been so good at that previously.

Back now in the cramped shopping streets and back alleys the Kim and Margaret did some souvenir and gift shopping and then to the other side of the town to the New Fortress.

There was a long climb to the entrance and seeing a pay kiosk I was prepared for another entrance fee but bizarrely there was no one there to collect money and a sign in the window saying free admission between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon.  It didn’t explain what the arrangements were if you wanted to visit outside of these hours!

A photograph taken in 1984…

Corfu Clock

The New Fortress was built by the Venetians to compliment the older one and it was completed by the British during the Protectorate period.  The British liked building fortresses in other people’s countries and also constructed some elaborate sea defences but rather like the Germans in 1944 they blew these up when they left when Corfu was handed over to the new Greek State in 1863.

It was a long hot walk but it was worth the effort for the views from the top of the battlements and from the flat roof of the old barracks and on balance (and I am not just saying this because it was free entrance) I think the New Fortress was more interesting to visit than the Old.

So we made our way back to the jetty and sat and waited in a friendly taverna under wildly flapping parasols for the speed boat and the return journey.  The wind continued to get stronger and a concerned owner came outside several times to examine his umbrellas which seemed to be going through some sort of pre take off routine.  The sea was getting rougher and I began to get nervous about the ride back.

The boat arrived and it looked rather flimsy bobbing about in the water as the hissing wind whipped up meringue peaks on the waves whilst overhead in the sky a fleet of steel grey battleships chased away the flotilla of dainty white sailing boats that scattered towards Albania but clearly the skipper was happy to make the journey and we set off back to Kalami.

I was confident in his nautical abilities of course but I also hoped that Saint Spyridon was watching over us because amongst all his other responsibilities he is also the patron saint of sailors, protecting them from shipwrecks and helping them to safe harbour during storms.

Another picture from 1984…

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Textures of Corfu – A Lamp on The Esplanade

Corfu Texture Lamp

 

Travels in Portugal, Return to Algarve

Algarve map

We left quite soon after breakfast because we had a long drive ahead of us now back to the Algarve.

Once again we had a pleasant journey across the Alentejo region as we headed south along mostly empty roads gliding effortlessly across the wide open plains.  Compared to the Algarve it is a largely undeveloped region where hillsides are as important as beaches, Roman ruins are celebrated as much as golf resorts, rural vineyards promoted as well as luxury marinas – it is, I suggest, a more varied experience.

The Alentejo is also linked to many of the most important chapters of Portuguese history. It saw the birth of Vasco da Gama at Sines and the death of the ‘Holy Queen’ Isabel at Estremoz. It was at Atoleiros that the celebrated knight Nuno Álvares Pereira achieved his first victory in the battle for independence from Castile and it was at Vila Viçosa in February 1908 that King Carlos spent his last night before being shot down and killed by republican activists in Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio the next day.

After an hour or so we left the flat plains behind as we began to climb steadily into the mountains that separate the two regions.  We knew when we passed into Algarve because the roads immediately improved and became busier as we entered the Portuguese poster region.

We planned to have an easy two days before travelling home and had chosen a rural location in a village called Vale Judeu quite close to the busy town of Vilamoura.  We were too early to check in so we went straight to the resort town for lunch.  We immediately wished that we hadn’t.  The official guide boasts that “Vilamoura is unlike any other Portuguese town, gone is the dilapidated charm, replaced with striking perfection, which is simply expected by the super-rich who frequent the marina.”

It is a modern purpose built tourist resort completely lacking in any sort of character.  We prefer ‘dilapidated charm’ and are certainly not ‘super-rich’ so stayed no longer than half-an-hour before quickly leaving without a single glance in the rear-view mirror.  I should have carried out better research.

After arrival at the hotel we took a stroll into the village where we found the dilapidated charm that we like and instead of roving packs of British golfers in between golf courses found an untidy bar full of locals in between food courses so stayed for a while and had a simple lunch.

Portugal Cock

Close by was a restaurant that came highly recommended so after a quiet afternoon around the swimming pool we returned for evening meal.  We shared a simple starter of grilled sardines and a main course of monk fish stew with beans, both delicious.  We had walked eight miles today.

For our final day we made plans to drive east to the town of Tavira, the last big town on the Algarve before crossing the Rio Guardiana into Spain.  We were meeting my blogging pal Jo who I have been friends with now for several years through our web sites.

I was looking forward to Tavira.  In 1965 the artist David Swift who wrote a travel guide to the Algarve said this … “For my money Tavira is the most enchanting town of Algarve.  It stands on two hills on either bank of a river, the Segua which is crossed by a seven arched Roman bridge.  The hills are crowned with castles and churches yet from the middle green fields can be glimpsed in one direction and the sea in the other”.

Roman Bridge

Fifty-five years later I wasn’t expecting it to be quite the same as described but I was delighted to find that Swift would almost certainly have recognised the place that he recommended so highly.  A wide fast flowing river, steep hills, whitewashed shops and houses, terracotta roofs and cobbled streets and still with its thirty-seven churches and a ferry service to the beach islands to the south.  What a delightful contrast to the dreadful resort town of Vilamoura.

ilha_tavira-ferry_boat

We spent a splendid afternoon in Tavira with Jo and husband Mike as our expert guides and as we drove back to our hotel we were in agreement that Tavira is a place that we need to see some more of.

For our final night we returned inevitably to the same restaurant, Kim had a beef steak and I had a salted cod stew.  The Portuguese love cod and it is said that there are three hundred and sixty-five different recipes, one for every day of the year so I thought it was time to try one of them.  I enjoyed it, the fish was firm and meaty but maybe just a little too salty for my taste.  We had walked seven and a half miles today.

In preparation for an early departure we packed before going to bed, I was quite glad actually, it is exciting to travel but it is nice to go home as well!

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Travels in Spain, a Cathedral, a Royal Palace and a Bullring

Seville Cathedral

“Seville was dazzling, a creamy crustation of flower banked houses fanning out from each bank of the river…. A thousand miniature patios set with inexhaustible fountains which fell trickling upon ferns and leaves, each a nest of green repeated in endless variations around the theme of domestic oasis”, Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning”

The Goya was closed this morning so we had a very similar breakfast at the Bar Plaza instead and debated our itinerary for the day and agreed that on account of the unpredictable nature of the weather that we should drive to Seville.

The city is the fourth largest in Spain after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, it is the city of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro with a reputation for drama, flair and theatre, castanets and flamenco, gypsies and horses and we set out therefore with very high expectations.

After trouble finding an underground car park it was quite a long walk to the old town but at least the sun was shining, lighting up the buildings with a rosy glow and casting long shadows in the narrow streets and we optimistic that it would be a warm day as people rearranged the shade of the canopies on their balconies.

The route took us along a couple of busy main streets and then following a road to the centre of the city we turned off into a tangled web of narrow streets and alleys that criss-crossed and dog legged in a most confusing way and made following the street map with any degree of certainty almost impossible.

Andalusia 196 Seville Cathedral

We were in the district of Santa Cruz, which is a maze of whitewashed buildings and alleyways all leading eventually to the centre and La Giralda and the Cathedral that is built on the site of a former Moorish mosque.  The Cathedral is the largest in Spain and the third largest in the world, after Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London.

Some uninvited grey cloud had swept in rather quickly so we were tempted to go inside but there was a long queue so we investigated the Palace Real Alcázar opposite but there was a long queue for that as well so we abandoned both options for the time being and walked down to the river through the district of El Arenal.  We don’t like queues.

After Madrid, Seville is the second most important centre for the national sport of bullfighting and after a few hundred metres we left the river and came up outside the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, which is the oldest bull ring in Spain.

Seville Bullring exterior

The origin of modern day bullfighting on foot (rather than horseback) can be traced back to here and to the town of Ronda, also in Andalusia.  It is one of the most charming bullrings in the country and although its capacity is only fourteen thousand spectators, which makes it rather small (the bullring in Madrid has a capacity of twenty-five thousand, the local football stadium, Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium has a capacity of seventy-thousand) it attracts all of the country’s finest bullfighters.

All of us except Christine, because she loves animals and can’t bear to think of them suffering, paid for and joined an informative and entertaining thirty-minute tour of the arena and the museum.

The walk back towards the Cathedral was along difficult cobbled streets where the houses had balconies with flowers spilling over the sides and it was full of the sights and sounds of postcard Spain and it was lunch time now so we found a traditional bodega serving sherry and tapas and went inside for food.

After dining we returned to the Cathedral Square, the Plaza del Triunfo, and had to make a choice between visiting the Cathedral or the Palace and we chose the Palace.  It was a good decision because the fourteenth century building was a jewel box of Moorish architecture and decoration with tiled patios, elaborate halls and extensive gardens.  It has been the home of the Spanish Monarchy for seven hundred years and the upper floors are still used by the royal family today as its official Seville residence.

Seville Alcazar Gardens

When we paid the entrance fee it was still overcast but by the time we had been around the interior the sun was out again and we had a very enjoyable hour walking around the extensive gardens and the wall top walks.  When we had finished we left and strolled back to the Cathedral and then into the network of narrow streets to make our way back to the car park.

Back in Carmona we rested and changed and went for a pre-dinner drink in a lively family bar called the Forum and joined the residents of the town out for an evening and noisily watching a football match on a big screen TV.

Later we returned to the Bar Plaza and ordered paella but there was none so instead we had a very similar meal to the previous evening.  We were the only customers in the place and the owner must have been glad of the company.  Actually the Plaza was the only place open and we worked it out that because it was out of season the owners were probably operating a cooperative rota system and we thought that was clever.

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Travels in Spain, Plaça d’Espanya and Poble Espanyol in Barcelona

Palau Nacional de Catalunya

The train from Montserrat arrived back at Plaça d’Espanya in the middle of the afternoon and this was our chance to take a look at another famous district of Barcelona – Montjuïc, a flat top mountain area which overlooks the port and the city.

The Plaça d’Espanya was included in the plans for the expansion of Barcelona in the mid-nineteenth century and was laid out with wide boulevards and six main roads all converging on the centre of the square where there is a monumental statue surrounded by a Baroque colonnade.  It was completed in 1929 on the occasion of the International Exhibition which was held in this area of the City.

The statue at the centre is designed as an allegory representing all of Spain. Three sides with sculptures that symbolize the three principal rivers of the Iberian Peninsula,  Ebro, Guadalquivir, and Tagus, around the central sculpture, three decorated columns which symbolise  a Spanish/Catalan self-assessment of the qualities of themselves as a Nation – Religion, Heroism and Arts.

Plaça d'Espanya 2

The Plaça d’Espanya is a busy roundabout, on one side is the old bullring, now a shopping centre (because bull fighting is banned in Catalonia) and on the other are two bell-towers known as the Venetian Towers, on account of the fact that design and construction was heavily influenced by St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice.  From there a walk up a gentle gradient towards the imposing structure of the Renaissance style Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the main exhibition hall and today The National Art Museum of Catalonia.

This is a lovely part of Barcelona that has a national and international ambiance with architecture borrowed and copied from across Europe and with buildings designed to give a representation of all of Spain.  A shame then that large areas of it were destroyed in the calamitous Spanish Civil war of 1936 to 1939.  Fortunately everything is now rebuilt and restored in the original style.

To illustrate this, at the centre of this Spanish showcase, next to the Palau Nacional, is an attraction called Poble Espanyol, built in 1929 and still there now as a tourist attraction.  I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

Poble-Espanyol-2

The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.

An interesting thing about the attraction is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop? So, I have looked it up; apparently the research designers were unable to organise a visit to the Canary Islands for economic reasons and LaRioja didn’t exist as an Autonomous Community of Spain until 1980.

We stayed around the area for a while but it was too late to visit the museum or the shops of Poble Espanyol so we stopped for a drink in the park and then made our way back to the metro.

Magic Fountain Barcelona

The route took us past a cascading waterfall and four ionic columns originally erected in 1919 to be a symbol of the Catalan Nation and its aspiration for self-governance and independence (the columns represent the stripes of the Catalan flag). The originals were demolished in 1928 under the orders of Madrid but were rebuilt in 2010. I understand the symbolism of the columns but to be honest I found them to be a little inconsistent with the area and a bit jarring on the eye.

Not so the adjacent Magic Fountain which was providing a fountain display where the water was dancing and leaping into the air with a cycle of changing routines. The fountain was commissioned to replace the four columns in time for the National Exhibition. It is a great spectacle but the best time to see it is at night time when the fountains are accompanied by a light show and music.

We weren’t staying close enough to return later (mid-June and not getting dark until quite late) so instead we returned to the same restaurant as the previous evening and instead of the fountain took night time pictures of the Sagrada Familia as an alternative.

Montjuic Columns

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