Malta — Beyond Valletta

Malta — Beyond Valletta

There is no denying that the Warrior Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (or Knights of Malta as they are commonly known) proved the most influential settlers in the long and convoluted history of the Maltese Islands. Their 250-year rule left an indelible legacy, most prominently the fortified  capital city of Valletta, which they created from bare rock to guard the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

In Birgu, the old Norman citadel was expanded by the Knights.

But long before they took control, the islands’ prime Eastern Mediterranean location and natural harbors had attracted successive waves of conquerors. The Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normand gradually shaped the unique character of the tiny country, and understood the need for fortified defenses.

 

 

The Fort Across the Harbor

The ferry ride from Valletta offers a unique viewpoint of Birgu.

When the Knights, having been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire, were granted Malta by its then ruler Charles V of Spain in 1530, their obvious choice was to settle in Birgu. Strategically located on one of the promontories jutting between the Marsamxett Harbour and Grand Harbour, opposite what would later become Valletta, this ancient city was already protected by a sprawling fortress dating back to Norman times (11th century). The Knights hastily set out to expand the fortifications into the colossal Fort St. Angelo, which came in handy when the superior Ottoman forces attempted their ill-fated siege in 1565.

The Knights’  arsenal is now the Malta Maritime Museum.

Seen from the southern side of Valletta, the panoramic view of Birgu is so spectacular that I hop onto one of the frequent ferries for the scenic, ten-minute Grand Harbour crossing to get a closer look. The ancient city’s waterfront has been transformed in recent years into a thriving marina and enjoyable promenade. At its head, an imposing building that was once the arsenal for the Knights’ galleys is now home to the Malta Maritime Museum. Its collections span over two millennia of Mediterranean seafaring history.

The Collachio is the medieval heart of Birgu.

Behind the museum, the steep maze of the Collachio neighborhood remains the medieval heart of the city. In true Maltese fashion, it is a reminder of the different cultures that held sway here. Its narrow winding streets hint of the ancient medinas of North Africa, with the occasional European Renaissance and Baroque building thrown in. And on the far side of it, after decades of restoration, the colossal Fort St. Angelo is now open to visitors again.

The First Capital

The main gate into the ancient walled city of Mdina was reconstructed in Baroque style in 1724.

Located on low a plateau of central Malta, the walled city of Mdina had been the capital of the islands since the Byzantine era at the time of the Knights’ arrival. Entirely enclosed within protective ramparts dating back to the Islamic and Norman times, its labyrinth of Moorish style winding streets was home to the highest echelons of Maltese aristocracy. Most of the town has remained intact, its quiet warren of pedestrian lanes, shady courtyards and stately palaces giving it an eerily Medieval atmosphere. But even so, there is no escaping the influence of the Knights.

Palazzo Vilhena now houses the Museum of Natural History.

Today, Mdina is a popular day-trip destination, an easy 20-minute bus ride from Valletta. But to enter its bygone world, one must first walk through its Baroque main gate designed in 1724 by French architect Charles François de Mondion for the Order’s Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena. Also included in the commission was the flamboyant Baroque Palazzo Vilhena (or Magisterial Palace) next door. Today, it houses the National Museum of Natural History’s extensive geology and paleontology collections. Even if natural history is not your thing, the museum may be worth a quick visit, just to see the sumptuous interior of the Palazzo.

The St. Paul Cathedral

The dome of the St. Paul Catherdal fills the nave with light.

Moments later, I come across another Baroque masterpiece: the St. Paul Cathedral, rebuilt to a design of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà after the original Norman cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. Its opulent decor features elaborately inlayed marble floors, gilded detailing, pink marble columns and exquisite ceiling paintings, enhanced by the natural light flowing in from the dome. Many artifacts that had survived the earthquake were reused in the new cathedral, including the early Renaissance baptismal font, earth 15th century choir stalls, and a number of works by Mattia Preti.

The Cathedral’s Museum holds a collection of silver artifacts.

Across the square, the former seminary, now the Cathedral Museum, showcases a rich collection of silver liturgical objects and sacred art. In addition to a number masterpieces of European painting, the museum also features a noteworthy selection of engravings by Albrecht Durer.

 

Bastion Square

From Bastion Square, the view reaches out to the sea.

Leaving behind the Baroque world of the Knights, I wander further back in time to the earlier days of Mdina, into deserted alleyways lined with stark golden sandstone facade and brightly painted wooden doors and shutters, until I emerge onto Bastion Square and the very edge of the citadel wall. The view from here is exceptional: a serene panorama of gently undulating farmland stretching all the way to the sea.

 

A Timeless Fishing Tradition

Colorful luzzu fishing boats fill the port of Marsaxlokk.

The Phoenicians settled it, then some 1500 years later, the Arabs gave it its name: Marsaxlokk (or Southeastern Harbor – pronounced Marsa-shlock). Today, the ancient seaside village at the very tip of the island remains home to the majority of its fishing fleet and a resolute slice of traditional Maltese life. Timeless low houses – now fronted by the busy terraces of top-notch seafood restaurants – circle the harbor filled with colorful luzzu (fishing boats). The boats are painted in stripes of bright primary colors, with at their bow a discrete pay of eyes. These “Eyes of Horus” are survivors of an ancient Phoenician custom, said to protect fishermen while at sea.

The town is especially popular with tourists on Sunday, when is holds its weekly fish market.

The Birgu Waterfront stretches along Marsamxett Harbour.

Good to Know

Getting there — Birgu: There is regular ferry service throughout the day between Valletta and Birgu. In both places, the ferry dock is centrally located on the waterfront. Mdina: Buses (numbers 51 and 52) run throughout the day approximately every 15 minutes between the Valletta bus terminal and Mdina. The trip takes about 30 minutes. Get off at Rabat, the modern district of Mdina. From there, its a five-minute walk to the main gate of the walled city. Marsaxlokk: Buses (numbers 81 and 85) run throughout the day every 30 minutes between Valletta and Marsaxlokk. The trip takes between 45 minutes and one hour depending on the traffic. In Marsaxlokk, the bus terminal is a five minute walk from the waterfront.

Visiting — Birgu. Malta Maritime Museum:  Birgu Waterfront. Fort St. Angelo: The Great Siege of 1565 Street, Birgu. Both are open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Mdina. Palazzo Vilhena: Saint Publius Square, is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Cathedral St. Paul:, 2 Triq San Pawl, is open Monday through Saturday from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm and Sunday from 3.00 pm to 5.00 pm. The adjoining Mdina Cathedral Museum  is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Sunday.

Location, location, location!

Birgu

Mdina

Marsaxlokk

Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

The history of the Maltese Islands dates back Neolithic times, when the first waves of stone age farmers came to their shores. But the story of contemporary Malta, and especially that of its capital city, Valetta, began in 1530 A.D., when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V bequeathed the islands to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

From the Holy Land to Malta

The ancient Fort St. Angelo juts into the Grand Harbour.

The Order of St. John as it became commonly known, was founded in the late 11th  century in Jerusalem to provide care for the sick and needy pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. However, soon after the 1099 A.D. conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Order received its charter from the Pope to become a military religious order charged with the care and defense of newly minted Kingdom of Jerusalem. And there the knights battled and prospered until the Kingdom fell to Islamic forces in 1291. They then retreated to the island of Rhodes, where they ensconced their headquarters within the impregnable Byzantine walls of the Old Town.

Fort St. Elmo controls the the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

From this Eastern Mediterranean naval stronghold, they set out to disrupt Turkish shipping, and generally become a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion in the region; until they were once again tossed out, this time by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. And that is when the Holy Roman Emperor stepped in, eventually granting the errant knights hospitality in Malta in 1530. They settled in Birgu, an ancient fortified city perched on a promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour, with at its tip, the colossal Fort St. Angelo.

Work on the bastions of Valletta began soon after the Great Siege.

The knights quickly returned to their lucrative occupation of raiding Ottoman shipping for God and profit, which predictably didn’t sit well with Suleiman. On May 18, 1565, determined to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of the troublesome knights, he unleashed upon them a Turkish fleet, by all accounts one the largest assembled since antiquity. The conflict, which would go down in Western history at The Great Siege of Malta, lasted four months. In spite of being exponentially outnumbered, the 500 or so knights and their small army, recruited mainly from the local population, held fast. They inflicted heavy casualties to their invaders and dispelled the myth of Ottoman invincibility.

The Birth of Valetta

The vibrant city of Valletta developped within its ramparts.

By the time what remained of the battered Turkish expedition had retreated from the Maltese shores, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette had determined that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, its seat had to be assaillant-proof. Under the guidance of Francesco Laparelli, Pope Pius IV’s military architect (think Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome), work began in the spring of 1566 on the rocky Sceberras Peninsula, between the Marxsamxett and Grand Harbours. Starting with high bastions and deep moats, a magnificent new fortress city took shape: Valletta, named after the respected Grand Master and hero of the Great Siege.

Side streets are designed accommodate men in heavy armors.

The main streets are lined with Baroque palaces.

Uniquely planned with defense in mind, the city was laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, its streets falling steeply as they got closer to the tip of the peninsula, to make it difficult for invaders to maneuver, and stairs were specifically designed to accommodate men in heavy armors.

But defense was not the only consideration: now the Knights needed places to live, worship and conduct business. A number of sumptuous residences were built, including the Grand Master’s Palace (a.k.a Magisterial Palace) and eight Auberges (or Inns) to house knights from the various Langues (or linguistic division) of Europe. All were designed in the Mannerist style favored by Maltese architect and resident engineer of the Order, Girolamo Cassar, and lavishly decorated by the best artists of the time. Several remain to this day, witnesses to the opulent lifestyle of the Order.

The steep side streets afford stunning views of the habor.

 

 

By the 17th  century’s, tiny Valletta – a mere 630 meter (0.40 mile) wide by 900 meter (0.55 mile) long – had grown into a sizable city as people from all parts of the island flocked to settle within the safety of its fortifications. The austere military style of Cassar gave way to lavish palaces and churches with graceful Baroque facades. Today, in addition to being the smallest capital city in the European Union, Valletta is now considered one the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

 

The Grand Master’s Palace

The Grand Master’s palace has retained its Mannerist facade.

Built as the formal residence of the Order’s Grand Master, the palace has remained Malta’s center of administration for the past four centuries, becoming the Governor’s Palace during British rule (1800 to 1964) and currently housing the Office of the President. Behind its Mannerist facade, it has evolved into a Baroque showpiece with lavishly decorated staterooms. Five of them are now open to the public, displaying  most notably a number of 17th century French Goblin tapestries, several portraits of Grand Masters of the Order and oil paintings of naval battles. Additionally, the armory holds an extensive collection or arms, including the personal armors of several Grand Masters and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege.

Casa Rocca Piccola

The table is set with family heirloom dinnerware.

Minutes away from the Grand Master’s Palace, the Casa Rocca Piccola is another of the city’s treasures. This 16th-century traditional Maltese aristocratic townhouse was originally built around 1680 for Don Pietro La Rocca, the Italian-born Admiral of the Order. It remained the property of the Order until it passed into private hands when the Knights were once again expelled from the islands, by the French forces Napoleon this time, in 1798. 

For over a century now, the mansion has been the private home of an ancient Maltese noble house. The current owners, the 9th Marquis and Marchioness of Piro, have opened twelve of the rooms including several drawing rooms, two dining rooms, the library, family archive and chapel to visitors. The fully furnished rooms feature a wealth of family heirlooms to give a glimpse at the life of a Maltese noble family over the centuries.

The guided visit includes the property’s basement. When Valletta was founded, the stone for its buildings was mainly quarried on the spot, creating foundations, as well as a cistern to store the rainwater collected from the roof, a necessity in a city built on arid rock. Visitors can descend into the vast conical cistern, which was extended during the Second World War to provide a bomb shelter for the family and their neighbors.

The Tongues of the Order

The Auberge de Castille is now the Office of the Prime Minister.

The Langues (or Tongues) were administrative divisions of the Order, referring to the ethno-linguistic and geographic distribution of its members. Each of the eight Langues had an Auberge (or Inn) where the knight lived and worked.

Five of them remain to this day, repurposed as public buildings. Most notable is the  Auberge de Castille, built in 1740 at the highest point of the city by Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, to replace the original 16th century Cassar building. Once home to the Langues of Castille, Leon and Portugal, it now houses the Office of the Prime Minister of Malta, which is closed  to visitors. However its flamboyant Baroque facade and spectacular views of the Grand Harbour make it well worth a walk-by.

What’s a Co-Cathedral?

The St. John Co-Cathedral had maintained its Mannerist facade.

The interior of the St. John Co-Cathedral is a Flamboyant Baroque extravaganza.

Lest we forget the religious mission of the military Order, there are over 25 churches in Valletta, including one of the most opulent ones in all Christendom: the St.John Co-Cathedral. Originally commissioned by the Order in 1572 as the Conventual Church of Saint John the Baptist. 

For the first century of its existence, the church’s interior was modest, until the 1660s, when Grand Master Raphael Cotoner decided it should rival – or preferably outdo – the churches of Rome. He commissioned the Italian artist Mattia Preti to turn it into a Baroque extravaganza of gold and frescoed arched ceilings. Further excesses were unleashed when a side chapel was assigned to each of the Langues. Rivalry became intense, with over-the-top monuments and mausoleums created to memorialize the regional knights who had served as Grand Masters. Additionally, as time went by, hundred of knights were buried beneath the elaborate marble tombstones that cover the entire floor.

‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’ (Caravaggio – 1608)

Preti also sculpted the Oratory, the place of worship for novice knights, to house a Caravaggio’s painting of ‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’. The work is now considered by many art historians to be one of the best painting of the 17th century for its chilling realism and outstanding composition. 

St. John’s remained the conventual church of the Order until it grew over the next two centuries to equal prominence with the cathedral at Mdina (the earlier capital of Malta). In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see – Hence the  Co-Cathedral moniker.

The Iconic Gallariji

Galleriji are a ubiquitous element of Valletta facades.

Valletta is a treasure trove of architectural statements, especially the ubiquitous enclosed wooden balconies (or Gallariji) that dot the majority of facades throughout the city. The origin of these Galleriji is obscure and it would be easy to think of them an an Arab phenomenon pre-dating the knights. However, there are no signs of them prior to 1675, when a long Gallarija appeared on the facade of the Grand Master’s palace. Which would account for its name, as the Grand Master’s was indeed a gallery running along several of the palace’s rooms. It provided him with a discrete vantage point from where he kept  an eye on the goings-on in the streets and squares below.

Over time, Gallariji became elaborate architectural statements.

This seems to have caused the sudden popularity of these wooden enclosures. Although most denizens of the city couldn’t manage  a whole gallery, a shorter version, perhaps superimposed on an existing small stone balcony would do just as well. Whatever the reason, over the past four centuries the wooden Gallariji have become a colorful icon of the City of the Knights.

Fort St. Elmo and Fort Ricasoli guard the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By air: Malta International Airport, with direct flights from most major Western European cities is located  eight kilometers (five miles) southwest from the center of Valletta. By ferry: there are two ferry routes operating daily between Valletta and island Italian island of Sicily 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northeast – serving Catania and Pozzallo respectively.
  • Getting around — The best way to get around the grid of steep streets and wide stairways of Valletta is on foot. Comfortable walking shoes recommended. Taxis can only access the main arteries and squares.
  • Visiting — The Grand Master’s Palace, St George’s Square, is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Casa Rocca Piccola, 74, Republic Street, is open for guided visits only, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. St. John’s Co-Cathedral Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt, is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and from 9:30 am. to 12:30 pm on Saturday.

Location, location, location!

Valletta

The Golden Age of English Painting — Musee du Luxembourg, Paris

The Golden Age of English Painting — Musee du Luxembourg, Paris

Of the 20 million or so visitors who descend on Paris each year, relatively few make it to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the sumptuous 25 hectare (62 acre) flower-filled park in the heart of the Left Bank, bordered by Saint Germain des Prés and the Latin Quarter. And even fewer suspect that under the centuries-old trees at the northwestern edge of the park sits the oldest art museum in France.

The First Museum of Art

The Luxembourg Palace was built as the residence of Queen Marie de Medicis (1575-1642).

The current exhibit highlights the evolution of English portraiture in the latter part of 18th century.

Initially housed in the west wing of the Palais du Luxembourg (built in 1615 by Queen Marie de Medici, Louis XIII’s mother) the Musée du Luxembourg was the first French museum to open to the public in 1750, almost half a century before the Musée du Louvre. The works exhibited here, about one hundred Old Masters paintings from the royal collection would in time be transferred to form the nucleus of the Louvre.

The Luxembourg was then designated as a museum of contemporary arts, and in 1886 settled into its current building. Much of the works first shown here from 1818 to 1937 ultimately found their way to the Musée National d’Art Moderne and the Musée d’Orsay. Then, in recent decades the space has become one of Paris’ premier temporary exhibit galleries. Twice yearly, it features a thematic exhibition of major works on loans from French and foreign museums, showcasing the evolution of European art in its historical context .

 

The Golden Age of English Painting

Joshua Reynolds – Autoportrait (1775, oil on canvas).

Through a comprehensive series of masterpieces on loan from the Tate Britain museum, the current exhibit pays tribute to the Golden Age of English Painting, which flourished through the long reign of Charles III (from 1760 to 1820). This was a decisive period of societal transformation in Great Britain, which shaped its artistic and cultural life. While some artists could still rely on the few royal commissions, most were now able to cater not only to the elite aristocracy but also to an emerging consumer society of new players in commerce and industry. This demand set artists free to express themselves in a diversity of styles, as they adapted their production to this evolving market.

While still referring to the masters of the past and the great schools of painting that had made their mark throughout continental Europe, this new generation of painters, led by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), fostered the emergence of a distinctive British identity.

A Reynolds – Gainsborough Face-off

Lady Bampfylde (1775. Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas).

From the 1760s Reynolds and Gainsborough were acknowledged leaders in the field of portraiture. Both received royal commissions and were “painters to the king”. In 1768, both became founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts, with Reynolds becoming its first president. Critics of the time regularly set them in opposition, and they certainly played on this by producing works inviting comparison. Reynolds’ works became known for their flattering scholarly references, while Gainsborough breathed life into his elegant portraits. Both, however, shared the same inspiration from Anthony Van Dyck, the Flemish Baroque artist who had made his career at the British court in the 17th century. 

All these formative points are brilliantly illustrated in the first part of the exhibition with an extensive face-off between the two masters.

 

 

From the Old to the New Generation

Mrs. Robert Trotter of Bush (1788-1789. George Romney, oil on canvas).

While Reynolds and Gainsborough redefined British art, they also opened the door to a new generation of talents. Their influence is illustrated in a selection of major portraits by their competitors/followers, such as John Hopper, William Beechey, Thomas Lawrence, Francis Cotes and George Romney.

Unlike most of the other great portraitists who wooed the royal family and attended the Royal Academy, Romney built his reputation on his independence. He soon became en vogue in London, especially among the thriving new clientele of entrepreneurs and merchants created by the booming economic and urban development of the time. Overall, the 1760s and 70s were creative years for all these painters, represented in this exhibition by portraits that also distinguish themselves by their varieties.

Family in a Landscape (1775. Francis Wheatley, oil on canvas).

This new, more individualist consumer society favored a degree of personalization that couldn’t be achieved in the formal portraiture tradition of previous centuries. The popularity of conversation pieces ensued, group portraits close to the genre painting, generally small, that had been until now the trademark of Flemish art (think Johannes Vermeer , Gerard ter Borch et al.). Here, the subjects were most often portrayed as a family staged in an informal fashion, an evolution of the portrait that reflected the increased importance given to private space and the comfort of domestic life.

A Newfound Appreciation of Nature

Inside the Stable (1791. George Morland, oil on canvas).

A pair of foxhounds (1791. George Stubbs, oil on canvas).

Landscape also played a central role in the emergence of the English school of painting. It enabled artists to express themselves more freely than in portraits, where the requirements of the patron were more restrictive. With the exception of great classical landscapes depicting abstract ideals and historic events, landscape painting had been relegated to the bottom of the academic hierarchy of genres. While there was already an established niche market for it, long dominated by Flemish artists, the emerging consumer society reinforced the demand for these smaller paintings representing with naturalism simple subject, designed primarily to please the eye.

The period coincided with the wars, first against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, which curtailed opportunities for travel on the continent. With access to the treasures of classical art now limited, a whole generation of painters began crisscrossing the British countryside in search of subjects. Scenes of rural life, inspired by the national landscape, took on an unprecedented importance and proved to be an opportunity to profoundly reconsider national identity.

The Rise of Watercolor Painting

Lake and mountains (1801. J.M.W. Turner, watercolor on paper).

Bridge near Rajmahal, India (1827. Thomas Daniell, oil on canvas).

At the time, watercolor was still being used in a traditional way, merely to bring color to drawings. The last part of the exhibition showcases the likes of Francis Towne, John Martin and J.M.W. Turner as they discovered new ways to use the medium as a wash. By giving the color a figurative power of its own, independently of lines, they introduced a new freedom of expression in their work. Watercolor thus played an important role in the growing popularity of landscape painting in England. Small in size, relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire, watercolors now catered to the flourishing bourgeois art market.

In parallel to this last section, a limited selection of late works documents the presence of Great Britain in India and the Caribbean, a reminder that the country’s artistic and cultural progress was essentially founded by the commercial exploitation on overseas territories.

Overall, this retrospective beautifully showcases the evolution of a vital period in English art. It can be seen until February 16, 2020.

 

The Thames near Walton Bridge (1805. J.W.M. Turner, oil on wood).

Good to Know

  • Visiting — The Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris, France, is open daily from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm with night opening until 10:00 pm on Monday. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 13 62 00.
  • Getting there —There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Saint Sulpice (Line 4) or bus stop Luxembourg (lines 58, 84 and 89).
  • Future Expositions — Later in 2020, the museum is scheduled to stage two very different exhibitions: “Man Ray and Fashion,” from April 9th to July 26th, and “Influential Women Painters (1780-1830),” from September 30, 2020 to January 24, 2021.

Location, location, location!

Musée du Luxembourg

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

Day Five – It’s mid-afternoon by the time we reach Granada, the city synonymous with the most emblematic monument of the seven centuries of Islamic legacy to the Iberian Peninsula: The Alhambra. Stretched across an entire hilltop, the fortress was the seat of power of the Nasrid dynasty (1230 to 1492) and the Moors’ last stronghold to surrender to the Catholic Monarchs.

An Albaicin Hideaway

The Albaicin is a maze of steep cobbled lanes.

Through the three centuries of its power, the city of Granada had spread North across the Darro River from the Alhambra to include the Albaicin hillside. A steep warren of winding cobbled lanes, narrow whitewashed vertical houses, pocket-size jasmine-scented courtyards and souk-like shopping, the ancient neighborhood retains to this day its picturesque Arabic character.

Our terrace overlooks the Alhambra.

To make the most of our Granada experience, this is where we’ve chosen to stay. The topography of the neighborhood means that accommodation opportunities consist mainly of tiny bed-and-breakfasts and short-term rental apartments. We choose the latter on this visit, and have the good fortune to find a comfortable light-filled two-bedroom retreat on the top floor a beautifully restored ancient residence halfway up the hill. Our private terrace overlooks the roofs of the old town and the majestic Alhambra proudly looming above them. We linger here, soaking in the atmosphere until the late afternoon light starts to brush the walls of the fortress with golden dust. Time to head up to the Mirador San Nicolas at the very top of the Albaicín hill and watch the sun set over the most dramatic views of the city.

The Mirador San Nicolas offers the best view over the Alhambra.

Across the wooded escarpment of Darro river valley, the forts and palaces of the Alhambra complex, at eye-level with us now, are taking on coppery hues. The atmosphere is festive on San Nicholas Square, where guitarists and singers are entertaining the crowd. Just below the square, we spot a couple of restaurants with terraces facing the stupendous views. They are much in demand of course, but it is still early for Spain (7:00 pm) and we are in luck. We settle at the terrace of El Huerto de Juan Ranas for a leisurely drink. The light keeps changing, and a full moon rises on cue, right over the Alhambra. My son Lee thoughtfully keeps the tapas and the sangria coming while I shoot pictures non-stop. It’s quite late by the time we make our way back down the ancient alleys to our apartment after what will rate as the most perfect evening of our trip.

The Nasrid Legacy

Under the Nasrid rule, a complete royal city flourished within the fortifications of the Alhambra.

At the height of the Nasrid power, a royal city of palaces, houses, baths, schools, mosques and military barracks flourished within the walls of the Alhambra. While a few remains of the complex date further back, most of what survives today – the Alcazaba (military fortress) and the the Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid palaces or royal palaces) were built in the 14th century. They now face each other across a broad parade ground incongruously flanked by the grand Renaissance Palacio de Carlos V (Charles V Palace), both constructed by the Christian Monarchs  in the 16th century.

The Alcazaba

Ramparts and towers were added to the original 11th century Alcazaba military fortress.

This military fortress of the 11th century Ziridian rulers was all that stood on the site when the first Nasrid ruler made Granada his capital.  He added the current ramparts, and three new towers: the Broken Tower, the Keep and the Watch Tower, and made it the first royal residence until the palaces were completed. From then on, the Alcazaba was only used for military purposes and later on under the Christian rulers as a state prison. The Watch Tower, the tallest of the three towers is named from the bell on its turret added under Christian rule, and which until recently was rung to mark the irrigation hours for the workers in Granada’s vast agricultural plain. The towers of the Alcazaba can be visited and offer spectacular panoramic views of the Albaicín and the entire region.

The Nasrid Palaces

The Nasrid Palaces offer exquisite exemples of Islamic architecture.

The Harem open onto private courtyards.

In stark contrast to the Alcazaba with its massive fortification and towers, the Nazrid Palaces are built rather flimsily of brick, wood and adobe. They were not intended to last but rather to be renewed and redecorated by succeeding rulers. The buildings display brilliant use of light and space, but they are mainly a vehicle for the ornamental stucco. Most of the interior arches are only here to decorate. The walls are covered with rich ceramics and plasterworks and exquisitely carved wooden frames. Apparently, the greatest concern here was to cover every single space with ornamentation, with Arabic inscriptions featuring prominently throughout.

The royal palace was structured in three parts, each built around its own interior courtyard, and fulfilling a specific function: the first series of rooms, the Mexuar, was used for judicial and business purposes. Beyond it, the Serallo held reception rooms for embassies and others distinguished guests. The last section, the Harem, housed the private living quarters of the ruler and could only be entered by the family and their servants.

The Generalife

The Generalife is a secluded summer palace.

The Generalife or Garden of the Governor was built in the 13th century as a leisure summer palace where the sultan could get away from the official affairs of the Alhambra. It is set on the slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the sun), from which there is a panoramic view over the Alhambra hilltop and the valleys beyond. Although a mere 10-minute walk from the palace, the Generalife has the feel of a peaceful villa, with none of the decorative excesses of the Nasrid Palace. Surrounded by lush enclosed gardens and serene patios with elegant reflecting pools and gurgling fountains, it succeeds beautifully in feeling like a secluded retreat.  And is my favorite part of the whole complex. 

The Alhambra and Generalife loom over the Granada landscape.

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The Alhambra is the most visited monument in Spain – and the number of admissions is limited to to 6600 per day – which consistently sell out weeks ahead of time. Mercifully tickets may be purchased well in advance on-line  from official ticket office. A general ticket allows access to the entire site with a strictly limited time slot to visit the Nazrid Palaces (you may choose time if you plan sufficiently ahead).  Beware: the link above is to the only official site for ticket purchase.
  • Staying – Our lovely Albaicín apartment was located on Calle Babole and our hostess, Gloria della Tore, couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. The property is listed with direct booking sites: Vrbo, HomeAway and Airbnb
  • Eating – El Huerto de Juan Rana, located at Callejón Atarazana Vieja, 6-8, Granada, is open daily 11:30 am to midnight.  Contact:  tel.: +34 958 286 925.

Location, location, location!

Granada

Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

Cordoba had been an important settlement since Roman times, but it was the Moors’ conquest in 711 a.d. that transformed it into one of the world’s leading center of Islamic education and learning. By the 10th  century, it had grown to be the largest city in Western Europe. Then its importance steadily declined after in was captured in 1236 by King Ferdinand III of Castile as part of the Christian Reconquista.

The Roman bridge was part of the Via Augusta.

While a number of interesting monuments remain from its long history, from the massive first century b.c. Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River to the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Castle of the Christian Kings), the fortress constructed in 1328 by King Alfonso XI, one building alone is reason enough to put Córdoba on our Andalusian itinerary.

 

 

 

The Mesmerizing Mezquita

The courtyard features a traditional grove of citrus trees.

One of greatest works of Islamic architecture still in existence today, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or Mezquita in Andalusian Arabic) is a unique symbol of the sophisticated culture that flourished here more than a millennium ago. It is impossible to overstate the beauty and serenity (despite the throngs of tourists) of its monumental interior.

 

 

The mihrab (prayer niche) is the focal point of the prayer hall.

The building consists of a forest of 865 columns of granite, marble, onyx and jasper, many of them repurposed from a Roman temple that once occupied the site, as well as other nearby monuments. The columns support soaring horseshoe-shaped double arches in perfectly symmetrical patterns to create the illusion an immense grove of palm trees. The sides of the sanctuary also include elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. In its original mosque incarnation, it became the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus ( as Andalusia was called then) for three centuries, serving as a teaching center and courthouse as well as a place of worship.

The Gothic Villaviciosa Chapel was the nave of first church built in the Mezquita.

Although it was promptly consecrated as a Catholic church upon the Christian conquest, its basic structure was mainly unchanged even as some 40 chapels were inserted into the prayer alcoves. The main alteration didn’t occur until the 16th century when Charles V authorized the construction of a large Baroque cathedral within the center of the former Muslim prayer hall. This caused some destruction, but it also ensured the preservation of the complex. It is estimated that 70 percent of the original mosque survived.

Intricate cupsed arches surround the mihrab.

Officially, the name of the complex is now Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption), or “Mosque-Cathedral,” although it is a Catholic church exclusively, but neither are commonly used outside of administrative circles. It is widely known as simply la Mezquita, so that in Cordoba churchgoers go the the mosque for mass.

 

A Royal Stronghold

The Alcázar has retained its massive fortifications.

With its thick defensive walls, the Alcàzar of the Christian Kings, or Alcàzar of Córdoba for short is a metaphor for the history of the Andalusia. Here, Roman, Visigoth and Moorish ruins mingle in an imposing fortress that was in turn a favorite residence of the successive rulers of the area. However, by the time Ferdinand III of Castile took the city, the former Caliphal palace was in a state of advanced deterioration. It was his successor, Alfonso X who began building the present day palace on the site of the old fortress. It went on to fulfill varied functions, from serving as one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and her spouse Ferdinand II of Aragon, (15th century), headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition (16th century) and more recently as a prison (first half a the 20th century).

The chapel now holds a display of Roman mosaics.

The most interesting feature of this blocky fortress is its small baroque chapel, now the Hall of the Mosaics, where a series of impressive Roman mosaics, discovered in the 1960’s during excavations of the nearby Corredera Square, are now displayed around the room. Beneath this hall are the Arabic-style baths divided into three rooms with vaulted ceilings with the familiar star openings.

Although Alfonso used only a fraction of the remains of the original Moorish structure in building the Alcàzar, he chose a Mujerar-style for his palace and gardens – which preserved the Moorish feel of the site.

The Gardens of the Alcázar

The upper level basin collects water from nearby mountains.

The gardens occupy a vast part of the palace grounds. Located on the Southwestern side of the property, it is believed that they were originally laid out by the first Islamic rulers (Abd ar-Rahman II – ruled 822-866) to complete the space destined to the Royal Harem, in a place close to the baths. The gardens were subsequently abandoned when his successor moved his residence to a countryside locations some 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, until the arrival of the Christian Kings gave them the appearance we enjoy today.

The gardens are designed around spectacular pools.

They are laid on three terraced levels. On the top terrace, two large bassins collect water routed from the nearby mountains and channel it down to the long fountain-pools flanked by cypress edges of the middle and lower terrace. On the side of the terrace closest to the fortifications wall, boxwood planted in a grid pattern provide the framework for a series of rose gardens adorned with statues of Isabella and Ferdinand – story has it that it is where they granted an audience to Christopher Columbus to hear about his project for a new route to the Indies. Despite their slightly formal layout and huge popularity with tourists, the gardens are an inviting place to wander, and my favorite part of the Alcàzar.

The Juderia

The tangle of narrow lanesof the Juderia preserve an intimate atmosphere,

Just north of the Mezquita, the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba is the medieval part of the city where the thriving Jewish community lived throughout the middle ages until the 15th century. At the heart of the quarter, the synagogue, a Mudejar construction and one only three original ones remaining in Spain, is now a small museum offering a glance at the Jewish culture’s impact on Spanish history.

Today the charming tangle of narrow lanes and secret courtyards, a must on every visitor’s itinerary, has succeeded to preserve an intimate feel – so far.

 

Good to Know

Visiting

  • La Mezquita may be seen in a couple of hours – although lovers of religious art could possible spend half a day here. Opening hours, November through February, Monday through Saturday: 8:30 am to 6:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. March through October, Monday through Saturday: 10:00 am to 7:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Mezquita tickets are sold on-site only. However, because the size of the site, there is no limit to the number of visitors allowed per day, and the ticket-purchase process is fast and efficient. If possible, avoid the 11:00 am to 3:00 pm time-frame as most day-tripper tour groups visit during these hours.
  • The Alcàzar of Cordoba is a municipal building run with the mindset of a public office rather than a site of touristic interest. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 8:45 am to 3:15pm. Closed on Monday. Other than confirming the opening hours (which could vary for organizational reasons), their website is near useless. Attempts to purchase advanced tickets send you to another clumsy website. Click “on-line booking” then “monument visit” and at this point your English language option shifts to Spanglish with a strong emphasis on “Span”. You may also get error messages through the booking process but persevere – It took me many tries over several days to finally secure my two tickets. However, to my knowledge, it is the only site that will give you the option to purchase entry tickets without expensive guided tours attached. The other alternative is to show up early in the morning and hope you’ll beat the lengthy lines.

Location, location, location!

Cordoba

Andalusia Road Trip – Seville – A tale of two cultures

Andalusia Road Trip – Seville – A tale of two cultures

This is Day Two of our Andalusian adventure. We leave the peaceful vineyards of the Sierrania de Ronda at mid-morning for the two-hour drive to Seville, the vibrant capital and cultural center of Andalusia.

The Seville Cathedral seens through the Door of Forgiveness from the original Almohad mosque.

Throughout the region, displays of Catholic dominance compete for attention with the memories of several centuries of Moorish rule. This is especially apparent in Seville, where the largest Gothic cathedral in the world sits on the site of the great Aljiama mosque built in the 12th  century by the ruling Moorish Almohad dynasty, a few minutes’ walk from the Christian Kings’ magnificent Mudéjar-style Alcazàr palace.

 

The Seville Cathedral

Detail of a side chapel.

When Ferdinand III conquered Seville from the Moors in 1248, the mosque was immediately christianazied. But it was not until 1401 that the decision was made to build a proper Christian church on the site. Construction of the sprawling Catholic complex, which boasts 80 chapels and the longest central nave in Spain (135 meters or 443 feet) soaring to a breathtaking height of 42 meters (138 feet), lasted over a century.

The Christopher Columbus mausoleum sits in the nave.

Although still an active Catholic sanctuary, the cavernous cathedral is now overrun by visitors following a loosely arranged itinerary of its main attractions, starting with the mausoleum of Christopher Columbus. His coffin is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain at the time of Columbus’ life: Aragon, Castille, Leon and Navarra. The massive late 19th  century monument by local sculptor Arturo Melida was originally installed in Havana, Cuba, before being moved to Seville in 1899 after Spain lost control of Cuba. (n.b. Havana and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic also claim to hold his remains, but recent DNA tests confirmed that this tomb does hold Columbus – or one of his close relatives).

A Surfeit of Riches

The Gothic main altar is one of the most important polychrome wood structures of its time.

A few steps away, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel, or central nave) is dominated by its overwhelming gold-leafed Retablo of 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ. This huge Gothic main altar, regarded as the largest in Christendom, is one of the most spectacular polychrome wood structures of its time.Tourists of all nations stop to gape while their guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.

The treasury holds an incredible wealth of silver reliquaries.

We follow the flow around the edge of the nave, checking out various chapels until we reach the Sala Capitular (Chapter House) with its magnificent domed ceiling mirrored in the marble design of the floor and its walls covered with fine Murillo paintings. Beyond it, the grandiose Sacrista Mayor (Great Sacristy) houses the treasury with its profusion of silver reliquaries, as well as the keys presented by the Moorish and Jewish communities to Ferdinand III upon the surrender of the city.

The minaret of the original mosque is now the bell tower.

However ambitious their Christian purpose, the new Castilian rulers did preserve a few elements from the Aljiama mosque. Most notably the minaret with its intricate brick pattern fashioned after Marrakech’s famous Koutoubia mosque now serve as the bell tower. This original Muslim bottom section is 51 meters (168 feet) high. Form the bell tower up, a seamless 16th century Renaissance addition raises the tower to 99 meters (325 feet). Topped with a distinctive bronze weather vane (giralda in Spanish), it has become the iconic symbol of Seville.

Citrus trees still gow in the courtyard where ritural ablutions once took place prior to Muslim worship.

The other remaining part of the former mosque is the vast Patio de los Naranjos, named for the orange trees that shaded the entrance courtyard where ritual ablutions took place prior to worship. In the center of the patio, a Moorish fountain incorporates a sixth century carved marble font, a surviving remnant of an earlier Visigoth church, which itself was leveled to make room for the mosque. On the north side of the patio, the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) is a stucco engraved horseshoe-shaped masterpiece also dating from the original Almohad mosque.

The Real Alcázar

The Alcázar retains elements of the original Almohad palace.

A few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, the Real Alcàzar (Royal Palace) is a unique complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens that has evolved over eleven centuries. It remains the official Seville residence of the Spanish royal family, making it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.

 

 

The Alcázar is built in the Mudéjar style.

The construction of the fortress began in the 10th century, during the reign of Caliph Abd al-Rahman (912-961). The complex was then enlarged and renovated throughout the city’s rich history. Beyond the fortification walls and the remains of a 12th century Almohad palace, all later work was carried out by Christian kings in the Mudéjar style – a post-Islamic style that remained strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship.

 

The Palacio de Don Pedro

The cupola of the Salon of the Ambassadors.

Also known as the Mudéjar Palace, the architectural masterpiece built by Pedro I (1334-1369) with its stunningly beautiful ceilings and elaborate plaster- and tile-work is the most spectacular of the entire complex. The Prince’s suite has a breathtaking gold ceiling intended to recreate a starlit night sky. The various apartments open through scalloped Moorish arches onto the exquisite Patio of the Maidens with its long central reflecting pool outlined by two sunken garden. The most famous of the public spaces is the Salon of the Ambassadors, a vast hall with a jaw-dropping Islamic-style cupola ceiling intended to represent the universe.

Magical Gardens

Almohad-style patios are arranged around bubbling fountains.

The Mercury Pond is inspired by the Italian Mannerist style.

The gardens are a major element of the Alcàzar. Spread across 6 hectares (15 acres) they have evolved through the centuries into three distinct areas that reflect the style of gardening of their respective eras while remaining the oasis of tranquility intended by the early occupants.

Closest to the palace, the ancient Almohad-style gardens are an inviting maze of tiled patios, bubbling fountains and secret corners, all connected by stairs and verdant arches. Then come the central Renaissance gardens, designed in the 16th century in the Italian Mannerist style. Their most famous elements are the Mercury Pond (named for the statue of the Roman god standing in the middle of it) and adjoining Grotto Gallery, which transformed a part of the Moorish fortifications into an upper loggia from which to admire the vast expanse of the gardens and the Charles V pavilion. The third area, created at the start of the 20th century on the former site of the property’s old orchard, is known as the English garden, and includes resident peacocks.

After a couple of hours spent making our way through the countless, extravagantly ornate rooms of the sumptuous palace, we especially enjoy exploring the fabulous gardens, spotting their countless fountains and generally relaxing in their relative peace.

Flamenco

El Arenal is one of Sevilles’ prestigious Flamenco venues.

Beyond its architectural masterpieces, an other multi-cultural artistic treasure of Andalusia is Flamenco – the complex fusion of song, dance and guitar music that tells the story of the Andalusian soul. The origins of Flamenco are much debated as this art form has been documented only for the past two centuries. Most of what we know has been transmitted in music and folklore. What is obvious it that it did originate in Andalusia when the area was under Moorish domination. The music and instruments were adapted over time by Christians, Jews and later Gypsies to become a hybrid form of expression to communicate their pain, oppression and passion.

El Arenal presents two nightly performances

Since the late 1960’s Flamenco has gradually evolved from local folklore to international celebrity, and Seville abounds with flamenco from bars, where the Flamenco “jam session” can be great – or not, to Tablaos.  There, nationally and internationally known artists perform professionally choreographed shows. With only one night to experience Flamenco on this trip, we go for the sure thing and book a table at Tablao el Arenal. Founded some 40 years ago by international flamenco star and Seville native Curro Veléz, it is located in a typical 17th century building that still channels the spirit of old Andalusian cafés. It has garnered a long-standing reputation for the quality of its performers, and also offers a dinner option with a fixed price, four-course, à la carte menu of Andalusian specialties prior to the 75-minute performance.

Our dinner and show advanced reservation scores us an amazing center front row table where we don’t miss a single step of the virtuoso footwork of the dancers. The show features 15 performers (guitarists, singers and dancers) and all are superb (sorry no photos allowed!). And yes, the meal is very nice too. Overall, the perfect evening to close our short visit to Seville, before leaving for Cordoba in the morning.

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The center of Seville is definitely a pedestrian experience. If like us you plan to arrive by car, jettison your vehicle in one of the underground garages at the edge of the historic center. Check  ahead with you hotel or short-term apartment management for recommendation of which parking to use.
  • Visiting –The Seville Cathedral is open for cultural visits on Monday from 11:00 am to 3:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm. Tickets are available at the door usually with a relatively short wait.  If you also wish to visit the La Girlada (bell tower) and/or the roof of the cathedral, advanced tickets are imperative. Make sure to purchase them from the Seville Cathedral official website to avoid surcharges.
  • The Real Alcázar is open daily, October through March from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm and April through September from 9:30 through 8:00 pm. Unless you plan to visit late in the day (after all the busloads of tourists have departed) it is imperative to purchase advanced tickets – again directly from the Alcazar’s official website. A regular ticket will give you a line-free entrance to the palaces and the gardens any time during your chosen day.
  • The Royal Apartments (Cuarto Real Alto), should you decide to visit them, require that you purchase a separate ticket with a strict time-slot reservation. And be prepared to leave all your belongings, including cameras and cell phones – unless you are prepared to leave the latter turned off in you pocket – in lockers at by the entrance. Photos are strictly prohibited. The audio-guided tour takes 30 minutes, with security guards moving visitors along. Only 15 public rooms are opened to the public and although these have historic names referring to long-ago monarchs (i.e. Isabella of Castilla and Pedro I), most of the furniture and décor are from the 19th In my opinion, the visit is of little interest and not worth the constraint of adhering to the strict schedule.
  • Tablao El Arenal 7 calle Rodo, 41001, Sevilla. Contact: tel. +34 954 316 492 – open every night for from 6:00 pm to 11:30 pm with performances at 7:15 pm and 10:00 pm.  We found their dinner and show formula to be excellent value (75 Euros, or 84 U.S. Dollars per person at the time of this writing, beverages included).  Advanced reservations through their website strongly recommended.

 

Location, location, location!

Seville