All posts by brucegk

Exploring the Albayzin

The Albayzin is the old Moorish quarter of Granada. It is a hillside rising opposite the Alhambra with twisting narrow lanes and steps rising to the top with excellent views of the Alhambra opposite and the city below. We walked up the hill from our hotel and by following Rick’s directions we found the San Nicolas viewpoint looking out at the Alhambra. From there we explored the churches, mosques, plazas, and narrow alleys using a combination of Rick, Google maps, and instinct. The area reminded us a lot of Morocco. That night, we took the bus back up to the viewpoint where we ate at an overpriced restaurant with a perfect view of the Alhambra lit up at night in a relaxing atmosphere. It doesn’t get dark until after 10 PM, so you can see we are into the Spanish style of dining late. After dinner we walked down the hill to our hotel using only instinct. To our total amazement, we ended up at the alley immediately adjacent to our hotel. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

Yesterday afternoon at tea time, we were talking to a British couple that was familiar with the Mark Morris dance company. Since none of you admitted to knowing them, I am beginning to think they are better known abroad than at home. We also met the former owner of our hotel who bought it when it was a ruin and rebuilt/refurbished it to the delightful hotel it is today. He said in the 18th century it was a nobleman’s home. It was inhabited by homeless drug addicts when he bought it. He sold it a few years ago and has refurbished another hotel down the street.

The pictures show you a typical street in the Albayzin, and the Alhambra at dusk, at dark, and by moonlight. The next post will be from Seville.

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Watching TV

Neither of the apartments we have stayed in so far have had any English language television stations. Since we are staying in hotels this week, not only do we have someone to make the bed for us; but we can get some English language news channels. For instance, yesterday we were flipping through the stations and came upon the RT channel with English language news. The commentators were discussing the NSA and how it required vast facilities to hold all the material it collected on US citizens and others. All the commentators were appalled. Next up was a story with numerous crying eyewitnesses about a bombing of a village by the Ukraine government. They then had quotes from our State Department talking about the measured responses used by the Ukraine government. Once more the commentators were appalled. Next was an ad for RT with Obama joking that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC sometimes got the news right with Anderson Cooper laughing in the background. The tag line was that news is no joke at RT. At that point, I had to find out where RT was located. It turns out that they are located in Moscow and are owned by the Russian government to offer a Russian perspective on global events. We changed to another station.

This morning we watched the Running of the Bulls live. It is a big deal in Spain and was broadcast live throughout Spain. The actual event lasted just a few minutes, but there were numerous replays in slow motion, interviews with the medics, and expert analysis by veteran runners. They even had an overhead camera on a wire (such as they use at football games) strung along the main street. It was fun for us since we recognized the streets and sights.

We really like our hotel in Granada. It is located on a narrow lane just off the main plaza. It has a courtyard with a retractable roof where they serve complimentary tea and pastries each afternoon. Best of all we got upgraded to a suite with a private little courtyard which I have turned into my office. It is easily our favorite hotel of the trip.

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Alhambra

Today we visited the Alhambra, a former Moorish palace and fort built on a hill overlooking Granada. Admission to the palace is limited and it is necessary to reserve a time slot for admission in advance. The Alhambra is divided into four major parts: a fort which is primarily a ruin, the Moorish palace with its wood ceilings, carved stucco walls, and fountains, the Charles V palace built by the Christians after they drove out the Moors, and the Generalife Gardens. This is all tied together by large gardens and auxiliary buildings.

A lot of history occurred here also. Columbus met with Queen Isabel in one of the rooms of the palace to pitch his trip to look for another route to the spices in Asia. The last Moorish king also surrendered to the Christians here who were making Spain a Catholic country. Washington Irving stayed here and wrote a book that made Alhambra known to the world. He is honored several places in Granada.

We were a little apprehensive about the heat as we had a 3:30 PM time slot and Granda can be pretty hot. The forecast high today was 90 F, but the morning was very pleasant and clouds rolled in this afternoon which may have kept the heat down. In any case, it wasn’t humid and it wasn’t excessively hot. We are sweating (pardon the pun) Seville as it has a reputation for being very hot. We see a lot of three digit highs when we look at the forecast, but it does get down to 70 F at night. We plan to go the Spanish route – out in the morning and evening and home in the air conditioning in the afternoon.

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Palace, War, and Brooklyn

Yesterday morning we visited the Royal Palace, which Rick (you remember Rick from yesterday?) calls the third best palace in Europe after Versailles and Vienna’s Schonbrunn. While the Royal Palace has no gardens or fountains, it has a lavish interior with 2800 (not a typo) rooms of which we saw less than one percent. However, we saw a number of lavish rooms, a dining table as long as a bowling alley set for dinner, the throne room, an interesting collection of human and horse armor, and five Stradivarius violins and cellos. The experience was much better than Versailles as the palace was not crowded. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in the interior; but if you are interested, you can see interior pictures here.

In the afternoon, we went to the modern art museum where we saw Picasso’s Guernica. Rick calls it the single greatest painting in Europe. I would question that, but its history is interesting. Guernica is a small city near San Sebastián in the Basque area of Spain. Leading up to World War II, Guernica was irritating Franco with its desire for independence. Franco gave Hitler permission to use the town to try out a new saturation bombing technique with his new air force. They chose a market day when the town was filled with civilians and the town was destroyed with an unknown number of casualties. Picasso’s painting shows the horrors of the bombing in general terms that have made it a symbol for the horrors of all wars. You can see the painting here.

Last night to celebrate the Fourth of July, we went to see the Mark Morris dance group perform a modern dance to the music of Handel at the Madrid opera house. We were not familiar with the dance group and speculated they were from Britain. At intermission, we used trusty Google and learned they are from Brooklyn, New York (Susan’s home town) and perform throughout the US and Europe. We thought they were very good and they received a warm reception from the audience. Has anyone else seen them?

We are taking the bus to Granada today and will visit the Alhambra tomorrow.

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The squares and streets of Madrid have street performers using hidden apparatuses to pose in impossible positions such as the following.

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Toledo

No, not my home town of Toledo, Ohio; but the culturally and artistically rich town of Toledo, Spain. Toledo has a history that embraces Roman, Jewish, Visigothic, Moorish, and Christian cultures. It is also the home of El Greco and a former capital of Spain. Accuweather predicted a showery day Thursday in Madrid but mostly sunny and only a 25% chance of rain in Toledo. We bought our tickets for the thirty minute train ride and off we went.

I’m sure you can guess we arrived in Toledo to a thunder shower with heavy rain. We waited for the rain to let up, and then took a panoramic taxi ride to see the city from outside the walls and the other side of the river. The dark skies produced some dramatic shots of the town. We went to a museum first to allow the rain to pass. That didn’t happen. When we were done with the museum, it was a deluge. We waited about 30 minutes for the rain to stop and then headed into town. The skies slowly cleared and the rest of the day was sunny and pleasant.

According to Rick Steves (and if you don’t know Rick and you are planning to do Europe on your own, I can’t recommend his guide books highly enough), the Toledo Cathedral is the best in Europe. I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. It is more spectacular than Notre Dame in Paris and was a far nicer experience as it was not overly crowded. The cathedral is not that special from the outside, but really shines on the inside. They have a number of paintings by El Greco and other known artists. I am not a huge fan of religious paintings, but El Greco’s The Spoilation (aka Christ Being Stripped of His Garments) was extremely powerful. One thing interesting about the painting is that it is shown in the exact place El Greco intended it to be shown.

We rounded out the day at the El Greco Museum and the Sephardic Museum. The El Greco Museum is located near his home and includes a building showing what his home might have been like. It was very well done. I liked Toledo enough, that I think I would enjoy staying there several weeks in a future year.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone. We don’t expect any fireworks here!

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The cathedral is in the center. The building dominating the skyline on the right is the Alcazar, now a military museum.

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The Roman Bridge

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Part of the High Alter

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Big and Bustling

We arrived at our hotel in Madrid after a six hour bus ride. In many ways the bus is less hassle than either a train or a plane. In our case, it was also faster than taking the train and much cheaper. It was a clean, modern bus.

Our hotel is located just two blocks off Plaza del Sol, which is the heart of Madrid. It is within walking distance of everything we plan to see. We are located just off a pedestrian street which radiates out from the Plaza. Both the street and the plaza are always packed with people.

On the day of our arrival, we did Rick Steve’s walking tour of central Madrid. Yesterday we went to the Prado museum. The Prado is certainly one of the leading art museums in Europe with notable collections of works by Velazquez, Goya, El Greco and Rubens. While much of the art was not our favorite, we became fans of Goya and El Greco.

Last night we did the tapas scene for dinner. The night before we had a delicious seafood paella.

The first picture shows a typical street sign in the old town. The streets were named for the shops on the street and for the illiterate and for those who don’t speak Spanish, they included a picture of what the merchants on that street did. This was the street to get embroidery work. The next picture is Plaza del Sol (it usually looks much more crowded), and the last picture is Plaza Mayor.

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Goodbye San Sebastián

Today we packed our bags and wheeled them to the bus station to go to Madrid for four nights. San Sebastián was much more relaxing than Paris. We went to only three museums during the two weeks we were there. We put in a lot of hard days down at the beach. But most of all, I think San Sebastián is one of the best walking cities I have seen. The old town is exclusively pedestrian streets. About a quarter of the streets in Centro where we lived were pedestrian streets. And everywhere the side walks were broad, plantings along the sidewalks were common and parks/fountains were frequent. If Susan were writing this, she would tell you the window shopping was great with many stylish, upscale shops. I am writing it, so I will tell you gelato shops were everywhere.

I know we walked every street in Old Town and the entire length of the promenade. I think we walked most of the streets in Centro. We walked to the top of Mount Urgul with its views of the city and the sea and numerous fortifications at the top. We also took the boat to Santa Clara island and walked all over it as well.

The beach experience here has a few differences from Pawleys Island.
PI: Sit in a beach chair.
SS: Sit or lie on a beach towel.

PI: Only the men take their top off.
SS: About 10% of the women join the men in taking their top off. This observation was done purely for research purposes. Sorry guys, no illustrative pictures.

PI: Wear your swimsuit to the beach.
SS: Change into your swimsuit on the beach.

PI: If your swimsuit is wet, drip dry.
SS: If your swimsuit is wet, change immediately into something dry.

And how is all this changing on the beach accomplished? You wrap a towel around your self and change. If you are getting out of a wet suit, you can do some discreet drying in mid change and watch the ocean nonchalantly as you further air dry. It looks like quite a trick that requires good balance and good towel wrapping technique.

We greatly enjoyed San Sebastián and highly recommend a visit if you are in Spain.

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Eating in San Sebastián

The Spanish move to a different rhythm than what we are used to. The stores usually open between 9 AM and 10 AM, but they close for at least two hours starting around 2 PM. A very tourist oriented store might stay open during this period, but everything else closes. This is so they can have a nice leisurely lunch. The stores usually close for the day then somewhere around 7 PM.

The late lunch and late store closing means they want to eat dinner late. Most true restaurants don’t open until 8 PM with some opening as late as 9 PM. But if you want to eat earlier, there is a delicious answer: pintxos. San Sebastián is the heart of Spanish Basque country and here tapas are called pintxos (pronounced PEEN-chos). They are small portions of just about any food you can imagine usually served on a piece of bread and usually held together with a long wooden skewer. Most of the bars have their counter filled with ready made pintxos plus a blackboard listing ones that can be prepared hot. Some of my favorites have been 1) bread with crab salad and a shrimp on top and 2) bread with an anchovie covered with a relish. But the anchovies here bear no resemblance to the salted ones we get at home. It is a great way to experiment with new kinds of food. Each one is usually under $4 and five or six make a meal.

There are seldom enough tables so you usually stand at a bar to eat your food. The idea is to have one pintxos and one drink at a bar and then move on to the next bar and repeat. We usually compromised at two pintxos and one sangria we shared per bar. Since you are eating these things with your fingers, there are a lot of napkins involved. And what do you do with the used napkins? You certainly don’t put them on the table or bar. You do what any Spaniard would do – you toss them on the floor. These places get to be mad houses after 8 PM and they are all over the old town. For those of you who know me, it must be hard to imagine me eating standing up in a mob with a glass of sangria in my hand and enjoying it – but that is what living in Spain will do to you.

Following are a few scenes from the pintxos bars. I also included one picture from our local supermarket where they sell frozen vegetables in bulk. You scoop as much as you want in a plastic bag, put the bag on the scale, punch the number of the item, and the scale prints a tag to put on your bag. Easy, affordable, and just the quantity you want.

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San Fermin Festival

We took another day trip by bus yesterday to the city noted for its San Fermin Festival and the world famous El Cincierro to be held the second week in July. The city was busy sprucing up, hanging lights, and erecting barricades in preparation for the week long festival. You say this event is not world famous to me? It would be if I told you the city was Pamplona and the event was The Running of the Bulls.

We went to the bull corral at the start of the run and walked the route the bulls follow to the bullring. They had already erected some of the barricades needed to keep the bulls from running off the path. They erect two parallel barricades on each side of the street. The press and medics stand behind the first barricade and spectators stand behind the second. There are periodic small gaps so runners can escape, but bulls can’t. The longest straight stretch is a road too narrow for barricades, so they board the windows and doors and hope for the best. The barricades are substantial with the posts placed in holes in the road for that purpose and wedged in place.

For the record, none of the above should imply I approve of bull fighting or think the event is a good idea. It is just part of the culture of the area and therefore of interest.

Besides the bull, Pamplona has a charming old town with narrow streets and ancient city walls and fortifications. It seems much more a typical residential town than San Sebastián which has a resort atmosphere.

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The picture with Susan in it is outside the bullring. The building is city hall and the last picture is part of the old city walls.

Simply Incredible

Today we made a day trip to Bilbao where the must see attraction is the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim is a modern art museum; but whether you like modern art or not, the real showpiece is the building by architect Frank Gehry. The building is made of limestone, glass, and titanium and contains virtually no straight lines inside or out. We happen to think that the design is beautiful; but whether you like the design or not, you have to admire the fact that someone could design it and build it. The building opened in 1997 and Gehry used cutting edge techniques in design and manufacture. For instance in the support columns which are curved on all surfaces, no two limestone tiles are alike so each one had to be sized and cut by computer. Gehry also spent a lot of time with the manufacturer of the paper thin titanium sheets covering most of the building to get the effect he wanted. We have made several trips with our friend Ron who is an architect. I kept wishing he were with us so I could ask “How did he do that!”.

Another highlight is Puppy, the dog sculpture in plants at the entrance to the museum. I wondered how they water the plants and how often they have to be replanted. The sculpture was intended to be temporary, but everyone loved it so much they made it permanent.

The museum had one floor for its permanent collection, one floor for a Yoko Ono exhibit, and one floor for a Georges Braque exhibit. Susan found the Ono floor “annoying”. I found it weird, but I was interested in the way she expressed her messages. Il liked a lot of Braque’s early works and his last works, but didn’t care for a lot in between.

Easily our favorite work of art was the film, The Visitors, filmed in Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. The title is taken from ABBA’s last album title. Nine musicians were filmed simultaneously in nine separate rooms. They had earphones, so they could hear what the others were doing. The film for each room is projected on a separate screen and the screens are arranged in two rooms so you can’t see them all simultaneously. The music is simple and repetitive, but it really draws you in. The whole performance lasted over an hour, but we only had time for 20 minutes.

After all this modern art, we spent the rest of the afternoon wondering around the old town. We like San Sebastian’s old town better.

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The glass in the interior shot is the elevator. In the overall shot from across the river you can see that a bridge over the river goes over the museum and has been incorporated into the design.