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Entries in Spain (8)


The Alhambra

The Alhambra, a fortress-palace built by the Islamic rulers of Granada a thousand years ago, a relic of a world now gone

Sacremonte, the Roma neighbourhood of Grenada, with houses built into the hillside.

The tranquil gardens of the Alhambra. Just one hill over from the Sacremonte, the climate is completely different from the blistering semi-arid district. The water features, tall trees and shaded walls create a cool and shady microclimate, a luxury fit for kings.

Touring the old Jewish quarter of Grenada, with all history obliterated aftr the Christian conquest and explusion of Muslims and Jews from the city


Also home to the rudest waiter I've yet encountered.



We spent our day at Bilbao in and around the Guggenheim. It is one of the premier art galleries of the world, but really, once you have seen the 12-metre tall puppy made of flowers at the front, you have to think, can they top this with the art inside? (spoiler: no). The building itself is beautiful though, as is the urban design around it, which integrates the crowded city with the open and lush riverbank parks. 

I’ve been pondering exactly why modern art galleries irritate me so much. It is easy to be snide about millions of dollars being spent on presenting pretentious art, but at the least it has caused me to contemplate why I find modern art so pretentious. I’ve decided that what grates on me is that it doesn’t meet either objective or subjective criteria for importance. The contents of a museum typically have real objective value, being items of historical importance (such as fossils) which can continue to inform us about the past (much information can still be gleaned from fossils even after decades of study). Historic art can fit this measure, but modern art? I don’t think so. Or you could take the subjective approach, and say that the art captures or presents a thought from the artist. Well, perhaps, but why assume that the thoughts of visual artists are more insightful than those of anyone else? Or if it is about the evocation of response from the viewer, then why the emphasis on displaying over-priced originals? A book captures and presents the thoughts of the author, and any of millions of copies work equally well, and yet with art we are supposed to feel something special about the original. And if you don’t, then with condescending distain you are informed that you “don’t get it”.

(This is not to say that I see no value in modern art or the display of modern art, but rather a stream-of-consciousness trying to articulate to myself why one of my first reactions to modern art is a visceral irritation)


The monkeys and politics of Gibraltar

While staying in Marbella, we made a delightful day-trip out to Gibraltar, that British rock clinging to the south of Spain.

When we were visiting Gibraltar we found out that Hayden had chickenpox. Happily we could use the rare situation of being in an English-speaking country to purchase medicine, but unhappily, after the pharmacy had closed for the day Hayden's medicine was stolen by a monkey. In fact, this monkey:

The barbary macaques are the most famous residents of Gibraltar. Irritatingly, everywhere they are referred to as Rock Apes or the apes of Gibraltar, despite clearly being monkeys and not apes. These monkeys are the only wild non-human primates in Europe, although many tourists obviously struggle with the concept of "wild". Despite many signs and verbal warnings given about the monkeys being wild and biting people who get too close, we saw many visitors touching them. One little boy even went up and hugged a large adult male. Okay, he was young, and years of soft toy monkeys would obviously confuse him, but the idiotic parents just pushed their other son over to take a group photo. Fortunately, there was a local nearby who yelled at the parents to get their children away before the "ape" gave them a lesson in natural selection.

"I can see Africa from my house". View of Jebel Musa, Morocco, from the top of the rock.

Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish in 1704, and while it was officially ceded to the UK in 1713 "in perpetuity", Spain has long wanted the mountain territory back. Oddly enough, for a rock surrounded by Spain and far from the motherland, the citizens of Gibraltar are enormously, defiantly, British. They are certainly far more British than anyone living in, for example, Britian - I doubt England, Scotland or Wales would get a vote of nearly 99% to stay part of the UK. It was probably heightened by the Diamond Jubilee and the royal visit that weekend, but the number of flags flying over the city was even greater than you see at a 4th of July picnic in America.

I was talking to our guide in Istán about the issue of soverignity over Gibraltar, and while he said that he personally would not shed any blood over Gibraltar, it was a hot button topic within Spain, that the area should rightfully go back to Spain, regardless of the feelings of the residents. When I asked about Ceuta and Melilla (two Gibraltar-like outposts on the coast of Morocco, occupied by Spain), he responded "We have a saying in Spain, what does a pig have to do with speed?" The answer, of course, being "nothing", as if the British enclave in Spain and the Spanish enclave in Morocco drew no parallels. When I asked whether Ceuta and Melilla should be given back to Morocco, he said of course not, since the residents want to be Spanish. 

Personally, I think the principle of the residents' right to determine their own soverignity is correct, so I'll agree with Spain over the Ceuta-Melilla issue and with the UK on Gibraltar. But it is not only Spain that is being hypocritical - the UK uses the "residents' right" argument for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, but consistently denies the use of that argument by the residents of South Ossetia to gain independence from Georgia. As I commented earlier, there is only one country in the world that has consistently applied the "residents' right" argument to both South Ossetia and Kosovo, so I don't give the UK much credit for applying it solely in those cases where it is beneficial to them.


Istán and Marbella

We just spent a week in the south of Spain. My favourite place must have been Istán, a small town in the Sierra de las Nieves. The arid mountains in this region shelter beautiful valleys, full of fruit trees, cork trees and charming little towns like Istán. Istán preserves the same compact town plan and white-washed buildings it must have had a thousand years ago when it was built in Islamic Spain. Rare today, the tinkling of water fountains was more common than the noise of cars. 

I was less enamoured with Marbella, the centre-piece of the Costa del Sol. While the old town still showed a slice of character, the coast had a decided Los Angeles feel, with enormous sprawling private communities, and the charm of Spainish beaches being subsumed by the need to drive along braided highways to get anywhere.


The other scandal of the Catholic Church

This is a horrible story brought to light by a recent investigation in Spain. For more than 50 years the Catholic Church engaged in baby trafficking in Spain. Mothers considered to be "unfit" by the Church (single mothers and unwed mothers) were told that their baby died during childbirth, but were not allowed to see the body. Instead the babies were smuggled to childless but devout Catholic families, where the Church deemed they would be raised in a more appropriate manner. Exactly how many families were affected is unknown, but it may have been as high as 300,000 and the practice extended into the early 90s. If history is anything to go by, I expect we will soon find that this was not a scandal restricted to Spain.

Yes, I know, the Catholic Church does a lot of good things too, but it takes a lot of soup kitchens to make up for a decades-long conspiracy in child theft and social engineering. Plus we could have had those soup kitchens without the baby trafficking.


The Lights of Malaga

Last night we walked through the streets of Malaga, first silent and heavy with rain, then (after a long Spanish dinner) vibrant and full of lights and people. We watched the bells of Cathedral y Museo toll, saw the tree of lights at the Plaza de le Constitution, and ate ice-cream beneath the twinkling strings of Marques de Larios and Alameda Principle.

This morning we explored the old fortifications of Malaga, which is where it shows best its history as an important Islamic city for over 700 years. Gibralfaro castle, overlooking the city, is the oldest part of the complex, dating back to the 8th century. The Alcazaba, the fort at the base of the hill connected to the castle above, was largely built during the 11th century, but both were heavily renovated during the 14th century. Throughout you can see the Moorish influences, the wall crenulations and design clearly in common with that at Chellah in Morocco, and the intricate carvings and decorations in the abstract Islamic style.

We are so lucky to be able to end a day sitting in a hot tub under the warm sun, gazing out over the Mediterranean Sea and celebrating our lives together.


The architecture of Barcelona

Our day in Barcelona was the tale of three buildings, Casa Batlló, Sagrada Família and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

Casa BatllóCasa Batlló is a beautiful townhouse remodeled in 1904 by Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí’s work is said to be in the Art Nouveau style, but this piece of architecture is unique even among a class of architecture known for its individualism. From the outside the building is stunning, it looks like it has been assembled from the skeletons of whales, with vertebrates making up the columns, ribs forming and arches and jaws bones the balconies. There are no hard lines and the fluidity makes even the delicate and intricate buildings next door seem harsh and clumsy.

Casa BatllóInside and the building continues the organic theme, but in a calming soothing manner. The floor, roof and walls flow into each other, mottled with a fish scale pattern, and luminescent tortoise shells bring in natural light. Even the doors and windows flow seamlessly into each other, the wooden frames warmly polished to almost glow organically and bubbles of light trapped within the glass sending ripples over the whirlpool roof. The most wonderful thing about the architecture is that it is not a pompous display of ability, rather every aspect is integrated into making the house liveable. The mushroom fireplace includes seats to sit inside and feel the warmth. The organic wooden panelling has fish-like gills built in to allow ventilation, the fluid design preserves warmth in winter and allows cooling in summer, and natural light is filtered from the central courtyard into even the smallest room in the house.

The attention to detail was simply suburb. Looking back from behind the house I thought it was a crime that such ugly buildings had been slammed up against this gem – only afterwards did I realise that the neighbouring buildings had beautiful frontages and the architects involved just followed standard procedure in ignoring the other aspects of their building. The loft had been used only by the neighbours for washing and Gaudí could easily have left the stagnant heat-filled design intact. Instead he recreated even this level for purpose, creating a cool dry level that breathed and using vaulted ribs to turn a drying room into a masterpiece.

Sagrada FamíliaOur second building, Sagrada Família is another, more famous, piece of work by Antoni Gaudí. It is the unfinished cathedral of Barcelona, started by Gaudí in 1883. This piece of work ended up consuming Gaudí, by the end of his life he had given up all other projects and even lived in the completed crypt of the Church. By the time of his death, 43 years after starting the project, a lack of funds had nearly driven the project to a halt, and even now with the building continuing according to his plans, it is not slated for completion until 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death. It is perhaps unfair to judge an unfinished piece of work, but I did not find Sagrada Família to be a beautiful piece of architecture. Unique, certainly, more like a sandcastle melted by sprays of water in the wind than a piece of hewn rock. But something about the style just didn’t work in a Church – perhaps the master of adapting the building to fit the purpose struggled when designing a building with no purpose? Or maybe the problem is the age. The modern wings and spires worked quite well, the fresh cut of stone synergizing with the “sandcastle” feel, while the oldest portions (those built by Gaudí himself) created a discontinuity between the soot blackened age of the stone and the freshness of the carving. Gaudí once said “Gothic art is imperfect… gothic works produce maximum emotion when they are mutilated, covered with ivy and illuminated by the moon”. Perhaps then Gothic style is better for a building which will be mutilated, darkened and obscured with age, while Gaudí’s living breathing style is better suited to a house that will be lived in and loved.

More enjoyable than the outside of Sagrada Família was the inside. Here was a chance to see a sight granted only to a few. The inside of a cathedral not as a static piece, brooding with the age of centuries; but instead as the worksite of skilled craftmen, creating a monument that will live far beyond them. There was scaffolding, heavy equipment, piles of stone, vending machines and workmen busy working on a single block of stone to be integrated into the whole. It demolishes the illusion of the cathedral being built by the Church or King, cathedrals are built by people. The inspiring branching columns are painstakingly pieced together by unassuming disheveled men wearing hard-hats and tool belts, people who will be forgotten the minute they walk out, while those who simply gave money will have their names carved into the stone forever.

Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant PauIn the crypt below the Cathedral lies a museum with the models of Gaudí’s vision for Sagrada Família. One of his major innovations was the invention of an inverted model. Rather than build up a model and calculate forces and tensions, Gaudí modeled the Cathedral upside down, using cords and small weights. Each cord bent according to gravity, creating the most balanced and weight resistant structure possible, with the angle of arches and the position of columns falling out naturally. Gaudí then took photos of the inverted model from multiple aspects and reproduced the structure as a model.

Finally, we visited the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Catalan for Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul). The hospital was built between 1901 and 1930 and functioned as a hospital until June 2009. Very different from the works of Gaudí, the building was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, with a much more traditional approach to aesthetics, full of religious symbolism and sharp detail. It is amazing to stand at the entrance of Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau and look down the long boulevard to see Sagrada Família standing. How many cities in the world have two world heritage-listed pieces of architecture, built by different architects in different styles, facing one another down a single avenue?