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

Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Stretched across the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Andalusia, the southern-most region of continental Spain, is a land of fascinating contrasts. Here, ancient cities dominated by grand palaces still bear the memory of their glorious Moorish past. Dazzling whitewashed Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) cling to the rugged slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. From flamenco to bullfighting to gazpacho, many of the cultural references that permeate visitors’ image of Spain originated here and remain woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Moorish fortresses and While Villages are sprinkled troughout the Andalusia landscape.

I never pass an opportunity to revisit this compeling region. Therefore, I was thrilled recently when my son, Lee Fuller, who had yet to discover the area, suggested that we meet there. We live on different continents these days, but once a year we make it a point to visit – each other and a different destination. With only ten days to introduce the many faces of Andalusia to him, a road trip was the best option, and destinations had to be ruthlessly curated, lest our holiday turned into a marathon.

 

Let the Adventure Begin!

The village of Mijas clings to its mountainside.

We coordinate our flights to meet at the busy Malaga airport, where we pick up our car and immediately head for the hills. Although the city has retained several Roman and Moorish landmarks, it has grown exponentially since the 1970’s into the pulsating gateway to the Costa del Sol. Here, drawn by the sundrenched beaches of the Mediterranean coast, throngs of vacationers from Northern Europe have spurred the development of sprawling concrete seaside resorts. Once picturesque fishing villages are now considered historic centers, brimming with storefront eateries, souvenir shops and guest houses. Therefore, we opt to give the shoreline a miss.

Mijas dawn.

We stay in Mijas Pueblo this first night, a short 30 minute-drive west from the airport. Once a typical whitewashed village tucked in the hills some 450 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level, it too is now a tourist haven, surrounded by gleaming white, gated resorts. But mindful of our jetlag and our newly rented vehicle, we stay in one of them, chosen mainly for the convenience of its underground garage. The next morning, however, we are rewarded with a lovely sunrise over the Mediterranean.

Dizzying Ronda

The Puente Nuevo soars high above the El Tajo Canyon.

It’s only 95 kilometers (60 miles) on a road that winds through spectacular mountain vistas between Mijas and Ronda, the largest– and most visited – of the famed White Villages of Andalusia. Dramatically perched at the edge of a sheer cliff, the town is split in half by the 150-meter (500-foot) deep El Tajo Canyon. The two sides were connected in 1793 by the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an engineering wonder soaring nearly 120 meters (400 feet) above the Guadalevin River.

Ronda titters on the edge of a deep chasm.

On one side, the old town (La Cuidad) is a maze of narrow lanes twisting between whitewashed buildings and palaces that reveal a rich Moorish history. The 14th century Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King) clings to the edge of the chasm. In addition to its lush gardens and spectacular views, it features a 236-step staircase cut into the rock, which goes down 60 meters (197 feet) to a platform that once held an ingenious pumping system. Today, its main attraction is its forbidding perspective of the ravine. As I start my way back up, I have a sympathetic thought for the Christian slaves who made the journey daily to fetch water.

The Birthplace of Bullfighting

The bullfighting arena features two levels of covered seating.

On the other side of the bridge, the new town (El Mercadillo) is home to the Plaza de Toro de Ronda, one of the oldest and most illustrious bullfighting arenas in Spain. Built in 1785 by the same architect who created the Puente Nuevo, it can host 5,000 spectators in its two layers of raised seating covered by a roof supported by 136 pillars. Ronda is known to be the birthplace of modern bullfighting. While historians speculate that the practice actually began in pre-Roman societies around the Mediterranean, it is Ronda native Pedro Romero (1754-1839) who perfected the craft and laid down the first rules of engagement, thus going down in history as the father of the Ronda style.

The arena includes a bullflighting museum.

Although we definitely are no supporters of bullfighting, we nonetheless appreciate our visit of the vast arena with its elaborate “backstage” passages leading to pens where bulls are housed on fight days, and tthe adjoining equestrian facility where the proud Andalusian horses are still stabled and trained. The complex also includes a small museum dedicated to the tradition.

 

 

The Plaza de Toro de Ronda can seat 5000 spectators.

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo.

Wine has been made around Ronda since Roman times. This wine-making tradition endured through the end of the 19th century when the vineyard was devastated by the Phylloxera pest and never recovered. Until recently. The past couple of decades have seen a renewed interest in the powerful red wines of the Sierrania de Ronda, which now boasts over 20 boutique wineries. A number of them welcome visitors for tours and tastings, and traveling with the family oenophile means we must check things out.

The Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo vineyards.

A bit of research points us to Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo. Established in 2006 on a two-hectare (five-acre) plot of land of the picturesque Guadalcobacin River valley, a mere 20-minute drive north from the center of Ronda, it is a family owned and operated artisan winery. It was created and continues to be managed as a rigorously organic operation – an important point for us – by its founder Miguel Garcia Pereila, who also conducts pre-arranged personalized tours and tastings.

Miguel (right) and Lee (left) discuss wine aging in the cellar.

Since the property also features a couple of accommodation options, we have decided to stay the night. We arrive in the late afternoon to a warm welcome by Miguel and his wife Izabel and settle into our rooms before our tour of the vineyards and the wine-making operation – a visit said on the winery’s website to take approximately 45 minutes. Ours takes twice that long as we pepper Miguel with questions while he introduces us down to the smallest detail to the cultivation and care of his vines following timeless natural methods..

A Memorable Wine-tasting Experience

The patio is the heart of the Bodegas.

When we finally emerge from the aging cellar back onto the cloistered patio which is the heart of the property, the table is set for our three-course, four-wine tasting dinner. We sip on a glass of pale golden Moscatel with its citrus fruit scent and crisp, refreshing taste while Izabel brings forth the tapas. The white table cloth is soon covered with a generous spread of local Iberico ham, chorizo, coarse country paté, Manchego cheese, slices of succulent tomatoes just picked from her garden and a golden potatoe tortilla. With its basket of freshly baked earthy country bread, it looks like a meal onto itself. Miguel reappears to introduce hisf raspberry-colored Rosado. An equal blend of Syrah and Merlot, it has a lovely aroma of fresh flowers and cherries, and a definite fruity taste. Since I favor crisp, lighter wines, the Rosado turns out to be my favorite of this tasting.

The table is set for our wine-tasting.

Izabel’s paella is the best we’ve ever tasted.

As we finish polishing off the tapas, Izabel returns with her very own family-recipe paella, followed by Miguel with his Roble de Alcobazin, an intense red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot with a complex aroma of mature fruit, black currents and a hint of vanilla. We linger over our paella, sipping the rich, well rounded wine in the warm Spanish night, feeling the moment couldn’t get any better. Yet it does when Miguel returns one last time, bearing his prize-winning Zabel de Alcobazin vintage red. Yes, it is named in honor of his wife.

This blend in equal parts of select Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes is a deep cherry red. Aged 12 months in French and American oak barrels, then a minimum of two years in the bottle, it is clearly too complex for me. I defer to Lee, the connoisseur of full-bodied reds, to parse the “nose” of mature fruits and dark berries with a hint of butterscotch. As for the “palate”? Rich, oaky and well structured, with a big volume in the mouth – a worthy grand finale to a memorable evening.

We take our leave of our gracious hosts the next morning and head for Seville, well aware that our time at Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo will remain one of our fondest memories of this trip.

 

The Puente Nuevo affords a dizzying panoramic view of the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Malaga-Costa Del Sol airport is the main international airport serving Andalusia. It accounts for 85 percent of the international traffic of the region. It is located eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of of the city.
  • Visiting Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo welcomes visitors year-round by appointment only. Consult their website for visiting, tasting, and hospitality options and reservations. Contact:  tel. (+34) 622 87 90 05. e-mail: info@bodegasgarciahidalgo.es.

Location, location, location!

Ronda

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Some historians speculate that the ancient Greek vinestock of  Malvasia grape reached the Canary Islands with the Romans. Others credit Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator with introducing the vines in the 15th century. Either way, historical records show that wine has been produced on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the archipelago, some 60 miles (100 k) offshore off the western Sahara, for over 500 years. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sweet aromatic Malvasia wine was thought after throughout Europe, with England its major export market.

Life in Lava Land

Lanzarote - vineyard 1

Lanzarote vineyards now thrive in the volcanic landscape.

Lanzarote was a fertile place then, with a thriving agriculture industry. However, Lanzaroteños had to rethink things when in the 1730’s, six years of continuous volcanic eruptions buried one third of the island, including its best farming land, under a thick coat of lava and volcanic ash. Grain and cereals, the staples of the time, were now out. Those farmers who didn’t flee for greener pastures in the Americas had to drastically revise their methods of survival. The island did have a proud heritage of viticulture, but would vines still grow in this new apocalyptic landscape?

La Geria-Vineyard

The ruins of ancient bodegas still stand amid the vineyards.

Actually, yes. The vintners soon discovered that the volcanic ash (picón) that now covered the farmland was an efficient porous mulch. It absorbed the moisture from the air, released it into the ground and then prevented evaporation.They had to dig several feet through the picón to reach the original soil and plan the vines. Within its own basin, each plant then had to be protected from the sometimes fierce Atlantic wind by a semi-circular wall built from the omnipresent black basalt rock. Since then, wine growers have built over ten thousand of these tiny craters throughout the island to create the spectacular countryside of black vineyards that is unique to Lanzarote.

No Sour Grapes

La Geria-Vega de Yuco

Bodega Vega de Yuco.

Today there are over a dozen thriving bodegas (wineries) on Lanzarote, covering close to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of active vineyards concentrated mainly in the central area of the island known as La Geria. Together they produce an average of 2 million liters (530 thousand U.S. gallons) annually, with around 75 percent of the production still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. Although they now produces a variety of wines, the most famous remains the traditional sweet dessert nectar with a rich texture reminiscent of aged Madeira. The balance of the production is split between Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which also produce quality sweet wines, and Listan Blanco for whites, and Listan Negra Mole for reds and rosés.

Lanzarote-vineyard2

The traditional single vine hole-and-wall method remains in use when planting new vineyards.

Typically, all Lanzarote wines are said to have a distinct personality: fruity, but with mineral characteristics and good acidity.The few that I sampled did fit that description, unsurprisingly given the island’s unique growing conditions. Most of the Bodegas welcome visitors with guides tours of their facilities and tasting opportunities for a reasonable fee. They usually require advanced booking. Here are three of the most popular wineries:

Lanzarote-El Grifo

Famed native son César Manrique created El Grifo’s logo.

Bodega El Grifo– Founded in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest bodega in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain.Their 50 hectare (125 acre) vineyard surround the El Grifo Wine Museum, which gives visitors an interesting insight of the unique methods of viticulture practiced on Lanzarote as well as a snapshot of the island’s history.

Bodega La Geria– Built in the late 19th century against the spectacular backdrop of the Timanfaya National Park, Bodega La Geria is considered one of the most important vineyards on the island, with an annual production capacity of 300,000 liters (80,000 U.S. gallons). Six wines ranging from dry and semi-sweet to sweet Marvasia are produced under the La Geria Label.

Lanzarote-Bodega Rubicon

The ancient cellars of Bodega Rubicón

Bodega Rubicón– Another venerable institution dating back to the mid-18th century, Bodega Rubicón has retained its beautifully restored colonial-style main house (a rarity on the island), complete with the courtyard shaded by an ancient eucalyptus tree. While the traditional artisan winemaking facilities of the old winery are reverently maintained, Rubicón has undergone major renovations and expansion in 2000 to introduce new technologies in the production of their wines.

Lanzarote-Bodega Vulcano

Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote opened its doors in 2009.

Not all the wineries on the island are historical. Some are quite recent, such as the Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote that opened its doors in 2009. But even these modern operations use the traditional single vine, hole-and-wall method when planting their new vineyards, preserving the unique landscape created three centuries ago by the ingenuity of the early vintners.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of the capital city of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and major western European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses serving all the major points of interest, and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option for exploring the vineyards at leisure.
  • Visiting –  Bodega El Grifo, Lugar El Grifu, Carretera Teguise-Uga LZ-30, Km,11,35550, San Bartlomé, is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Sunday at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 524 036, mail. malvasia@elgrifo.com. Bodega La Geria, Carretera la Geria, Km 19, 35570, Yaiza,is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday at 2:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 178, mail. bodegalageria@lageria.com. Bodega Rubicón, Carretera Teguise-Yaiza, 2, 35570, La Geria, Las Palmas is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 708, mail. administracion@bodegasrubicon.com.
  • The vineyards of La Geria are an area protected by the Lanzarote DO destination of origin.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Geria

El Grifo

Rubicón

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Canary Islands rise from the Atlantic Ocean some 100 kilometers (62 miles) at their closest point off the coast of North Africa. As the southernmost province of Spain, the archipelago has become over the past few decades a popular subtropical escape for beachgoers from Western Europe. And it has acquired a mass-tourism reputation that has kept it off my list of compelling destinations – until now.

Why Lanzarote?

Lanazarote-agricultural interior.

Lanzarote’s landscape was shaped by volcano eruptions.

With winter about to close in on the Northern Hemisphere, I am yearning for just one more week of sunshine and snorkeling before the onslaught of the year end holidays. The easy accessibility of the Canaries earns them a second look, and preconceived perceptions dwindle. As with most places, the archipelago has its share of less developped areas, places like Lanzarote. Much less familiar than its overbuilt Gran Canaria and Tenerife siblings, the island owes its unique personality to two major influences: the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history and the island’s favorite son, César Manrique.

An Alien Planet

Lanzarote-Timanfaya logo.

The sculpture marking the entrance to the Timanfaya National Park was created by César Manrique.

The eruption began in September 1730. Over the next six years, it buried a third of the island under torrents of lava, wiping out a dozen villages and several hundred homes, and dusted most of the remaining agricultural land under a thick layer of ash.To this day, the scarred badlands it left behind, now the Timanfaya National Park, are as starkly surreal as an alien planet.

Timanfaya-Fire Mountains.

The Fire Mountains vistas evoke an alien planet.

The park is the island’s leading tourist attraction, drawing close to two million visitors per year. Fortunately, strict controls are in place to protect its unique landscape from human depredation (as well as protecting visitors from the unforgiving terrain). At the Visitor Center, sightseers must board a comfortable air-conditioned bus that take them on a winding tour of the aptly named Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains). The narrow 14 kilometer (9 mile) “Ruta de los Volcanes”, is a one-way circuit closed to normal traffic. The bus stops at the most spectacular vantage points, with enough time for passengers to capture the moment. Throughout the trip, a soundtrack in Spanish, English and German dispenses information about the eruption.

Timanfaya-Silver desert grass.

Tufts of sliver grass rise from the thick coat of ash.

Although there hasn’t been an actual volcanic upsurge on the island since 1824, the fire still smolders beneath Timanfaya. Back at the Visitor Center, staff demonstrate the heat of a residual geothermic anomaly (or magma chamber) close to the surface, instantly causing dry brush to burst into flame and vaporizing water into a jet of steam.

 

 

 

César Manrique, Local Hero

Lanzarote-Village

Traditional whitewashed homes are the norm on the island.

Born in Lanzarote’s capital of Arrecife in 1919, César Manrique went on to build a reputation as an abstract artist in Madrid and New York before returning to his homeland in 1968. An passionate environmentalist, he then dedicated the remaining 25 years of his life to the preservation of what he called the “singularity” of his beloved island. He relentlessly lobbied the local government to introduce regulations that would ensure the responsible development of tourism. His influence proved as far-reaching a force in shaping present-day Lanzarote as the overwhelming volcanic eruptions that blasted the island three centuries ago.

Lanzarote-El Diablo Panorama.

The panoramic views from the Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surreal landscape of the park.

Manrique was instrumental in drawing up strict guidelines for the construction of the beautifully simple, whitewashed low-rise buildings reminiscent of the ancient  White Villages of Andalusia. They have since influenced all development projects on the island, from the restoration of humble village houses to sprawling luxury resorts. But Manrique didn’t stop at the preservation of Lanzarote’s distinctive identity and natural resources. He also left his imprint on the land with a series of landscape art creations. In Timanfaya National Park, high above the Visitor Center, the dining room of his circular Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surrealist landscape of craters and crusted magma formations streaked with startling orange, reddish-pink and purple overtones.

The El Rio straight, seen from the edge of the Famara cliff.

Further north up the coast, his Mirador del Rio is an other testimonial to his inexhaustible architectural creativity. Here, a lookout point is wedged into the Famara cliff face, framing with a curved spaceship-like window the overwhelming views of the Atlantic Ocean some 475 meters (1,500 feet) below, and across the narrow El Rio straight, the nearby island of La Graciosa.

 

 

Manrique’s Own Home

Lanzarote-Taro de Tahiche

Created within volcanic bubbles, Manrique’s home includes a spectacular swimming pool.

Of all of Manrique’s creations, the one that best reflect his passion for the island’s extraordinary landscapes is his own home at Taro de Tahiche. At ground level, the façade appears that of a simple, whitewashed, lanzarotoño country house. But step inside and it’s all open spaces, with light flooding in from skylights and a glass wall looking down at an open-air aquamarine swimming pool surrounded by giant cacti. Around the pool, curvy nooks and rooms created from five natural volcanic bubbles are interconnected by tunnels excavated in the lava. Today the property houses the César Manrique Foundation and attracts visitors in droves.

Another Manrique favorite is the majestic adjoining Jameos del Agua, a vast volcanic cave system that includes a shimmering underground lagoon filled with silvery blind albino crabs and a natural auditorium that slopes down into the earth.

Seashore Favorites

Lanzarote-Playa Blanca

Once an isolated fishing village, Playa Blanca is now one of the island’s popular resorts.

While I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected abundance of unique attractions on the island, I didn’t lose sight of what had originally drawn me there: Lanzarote’s reputation for some of the best snorkeling spots in the Canaries. The southern tip of the island, with over six kilometers (four miles) of pale sandy beaches sheltered from the gusting Atlantic winds by the nearby Femes mountains seemed an obvious place to settle. At the center of it, Playa Blanca, until recently an isolated fishing village, has predictably grown into one of the island’s most popular resorts. Although it now shows all the signs of a mass tourism destination: large resort hotels, a boardwalk lined with café terraces and souvenir shops, it was pleasantly uncrowded during my late fall visit. But mainly, it boasts clear, calm waters and seawalls teaming with life accessible right from the beach. Just swim in and float along with a variety of small species: schools of sardines to be sure, but also rainbow fish, zebra fish, parrot fish, cuttlefish and sea cucumbers.

Lanzarote- Playa de Papagayo

The Playa de Papagayo cove is one of the most pristine snorketling spots on the island.

For more seclusion and marine life, a few miles to the east the pristine shallow cove of Playa de Papagayo is tucked within the sheer cliffs of the Los Ajaches Nature Reserve. Although it is accessible only via a rocky dirt road to the parking lot, then a steep flight of stairs to the beach, it is well worth a visit. Still a bit farther up the eastern shore, and of much easier access, Puerto del Carmen’s Playa Chica is a favorite with divers as well as snorkelers. And with good reason – it is loaded with underwater critters. Here again you can swim right off the beach, or jump in from the small harbor wall. And the variety is even more interesting. In addition to the above, I spotted starfish, squid, various bream, small Sama eels and even a distant barracuda.

 

Lanzarote-Whitewashed village

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses on the island and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option to thoroughly explore the island. There are excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. It’s about one hour of driving time to cross the island from North to South, and about thirty minutes across.
  • Visiting –Timanfaya National Park– Fire Mountains Visitor Center is open daily from September 16 to July 14, 9:00 am to 5:45 pm, and from July 15 to September 15, 9:00 am to 6:45 pm, with the last bus tour departing 45 minutes before closing time. Contact: tel. +34 928 840 057. Cesar Manrique Foundation, and Cesar Manrique House Museum, Taro de Tahíche – C/ Jorge Luis Borges, 16, 35507 Tahíche. Lanzarote, are open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: tel. + 34 928 843 138, mail. fcm@fcmanrique.org.
  • The entire island of Lanzarote was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 1993.

Location, location, location!

Lanzarote, Spain

Playa Blanca

Timanfaya National Park

Taro de Tahiche

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s architectural heritage may span 2000 years, but in recent decades this most visited of Spanish cities has become all but synonymous with Gaudi, the undisputed master of Catalan Modernism. His indelible influence helped shape the design of the city during its industrial renaissance heydays.

Who was Gaudi?

Gaudi-Casa Batllo facade detail.

Gaudi’s elaborate dynamic curves and organic shapes are a trademark of Catalan Modernism.

Born Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudi I Cornet in 1852 in  Reus, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) south of Barcelona, in 1852, he studied architecture in the Catalan capital. Here, he quickly embraced the Art Nouveau style and its predominance of curves, dynamic shapes and elaborate decorations that favored the use of organic motives. His work was controversial and not widely appreciated during his lifetime. It was not until well after his death in 1926 that he became recognized as the most influential leader of the Catalan Modernist movement.

Gaudi-Casa Mila atrium.

At Casa Milà, the stairs that lead to the entrance of the apartments wind along the atrium walls.

Now admired worldwide, his buildings figure among the top tourist attractions in Barcelona. Seven of them have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1984, for their “exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

Which Gaudi sites to visit? Unless you are an architecture student or an inveterate Gaudi fanatic with several days on your hands, a couple should suffice to get an understanding of the master’s achievements. In addition to which you are sure to catch a walk-by look at a few others, just by wandering around the central Eixample district.

A Gaudi Crash Course – Casa Batlló

Gaudi-Casa Batllo noble floor.

The “noble floor” is an Art Nouveau masterpiece onto itself.

Gaudi-Casa Batlló roofline

The arched roofline gives the house a surreal fairytale look.

This is the first of Gaudi’s works I ever came across, and it remains my favorite. On my first visit to Barcelona some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a reception here. Our host had privatized the property for the evening, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience at leisure one of the most emblematic works of this brilliant architect.

The house was originally constructed in 1877, and by all accounts was an architecturally unremarkable classic building, albeit located at a desirable spot of the Passeig de Gràcia, in the fashionable new Eixample district. It was purchased in 1903 by Joseph Batlló y Casanovas, a prominent textile industrialist who granted Gaudi full creative freedom to design his residence here. Although the commission initially entailed demolishing the original structure, Gaudi ruled it out. He proposed instead an extensive remodeling effort that redesigned the façade, redistributed the interior spaces and radically expanded the central skylight. Thus transforming the building into a functional, modern home and a striking Art Nouveau showcase.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo skyline.

Natural light flowing down the skylight ripples along  the ceramic tiles.

Covered with a mosaic of glass shards in a palette of blues and greens, the undulating façade, under the effects of the changing light and sunshine, gives an illusion of water in motion. The dramatic arch of the roof, tiled in electric blue Majorca ceramic, tops the building with a giant wave. Many also see in it an interpretation of the legend of Saint George (the patron saint of Catalonia) slaying the dragon. Then, the roof become the scaly back of the dragon, with the cross-topped tower representing the knight’s lance entering his victim. Either way, the house exudes a surreal fairytale look.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo staircase.

The staircase evokes a Jules Verne underwater world.

Behind this Modernist façade, visitors enter a symbolic Jules Verne underwater world, where the grand staircase  undulates like the spine of a giant marine beast, up to the 700 square meter (7500 square foot)  “noble floor,” which the Batlló family occupied until the mid-1950’s, Here, Gaudi transformed the original layout, opening partition walls with large stained glass-paned double doors to create a vast gallery of multi-purpose areas. Today, Casa Batlló is broadly viewed as the ultimate expression of Catalan Modernism.

Park Güell and the Gaudi House Museum

Gaudi-Park Guell gate houses.

Gaudi found inspiration in the tale of Hansel and Gretel for his design of the gate houses.

If Casa Batlló is Gaudi’s fantasy house, Park Güell is his quintessential dream park. Built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaborative venture between entrepreneur Eusebi Güell (hence its name) and Gaudi, the park was originally conceived as a luxury gated community for the Barcelona elite. However, due to its remote Carmel Hill location on the northwestern side of the city, there was little interest in the planned 60 construction plots. Only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudi. Ironically, he purchased one of them in 1906 and resided there for the remainder of his life. He did, however, design the park, an 18-hectare (45-acre) wonderland with some 3 kilometers (2 miles) of walks and steps, fascinating stone structures, wooded areas laced with pathways and two Hansel and Gretel-style gatehouses.

Gaudi-Park Guell fountain.

The fountain at the main entrance of the park is one of the most photographed lizards in the world.

The steps at the entrance are guarded by one of the most famous lizards ever: the colorful mosaic dragon fountain whose likeness can be found by the shelf-full in gift shops throughout the city. At the top of the hill, a large square surrounded by a sinuous tiled bench offers a spectacular view of the park and the entire city. Gaudi’s home is now a museum housing a comprehensive collection of furniture and decorative elements of his own design.

Iconic Casa Milà

Gaudi-Casa Mila Pedrera.

Casa Milà’s organic facade earned it the moniker of The Quarry.

Casa Milà is considered Gaudi’s most iconic residential design, due to its structural and functional innovations as well as its striking ornamental solutions. Formally named after the businessman who commissioned it, it is better known by the moniker originally given to the structure for its pale, irregular stone façade appearance: La Pedrera (the Quarry).

 

Gaudi-Pedrera atrium frescoes

The vaulted ceilings and walls of the atrium are decorated with colorful frescoes.

The curved façade is a unique example of organic architecture, looking like a massive rock softened by its wavy lines and undulating wrought iron balconies. The house actually consists of two separate buildings that share only their façade and roof.  Both have their individual entrance and atrium. The interior is equally groundbreaking, including an elaborate ventilation system that eliminates the need for air-conditioning.  But it is the roof that is the most startling part of La Pedrera.

Gaudi-Pedrera roof warriors.

Helmet-clad stone warriors conceal ventilation towers.

Aside from its remarkable views of the city, the roof terrace is a unique maze of unbridled creativity. Here, convoluted flights of stairs and walkways lead to and around clusters of giant helmet-clad stone warriors and Darth Vader look-alikes that conceal chimneystacks and ventilation towers. Beneath it, the soaring attic space supported by 270 parabolic brick vaults houses a modest museum with a display of architectural models of Gaudi’s buildings and some of his furniture creations. It is the last residential building designed by Gaudi before he devoted himself entirely to the construction of La Sagrada Familia.

An Overwhelming Architectural Hallucination

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia.

Although still under construction, La Sagrada Familia is the most visited landmark in Spain.

A work in progress for the past 136 years at the time of this writing, La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is one of the most overwhelming catholic sanctuaries ever devised and Gaudi’s most famous work. Financed from the start solely with private donations, and more recently with the steep “donations” levied from tourists, its construction was interrupted in the mid-20th century by the Spanish Revolution. It began to gather momentum again after the Second World War, and the process accelerated exponentially over the past four decades with the introduction of computers into the design and construction process. The project was declared to have passed mid-point in 2010, and to be 70 percent complete in 2016. However some of the greatest challenges remain, including the construction of six additional giant steeples.

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia Nativity.

The Nativity Façade chronicles the birth and life of Jesus.

Of the three great façades, the Nativity to the East, the Passion to the West and the Glory on the South side, only the Nativity was completed in Gaudi’s life time. It is easily recognizable for its molten wax look and its scenes reminiscent of the birth and early life of Jesus. The construction of the Passion façade, built from 1954 to 1976, is especially striking for its stark, gaunt characters, including an emaciated figure of Christ being scourged, and the crucifiction. The Glory, started in 2002 and still unfinished, will the largest of the three. In addition to the Ascension of Christ to heaven, it is expected to represent various scenes of Hell and Purgatory as well as the seven deadly sins.

If time allows, and you have anticipated by purchasing your entrance tickets well ahead (it is the most visited tourist attraction in the Spain), do step in and gawk at the soaring flower vaults and rainbow-colored stain glass, and experience this grandest of architectural hallucination ever.

Good to Know

  • Visiting –  Casa BatllòPasseig de Gràcia 43. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia.Open daily from 9:00 am-9:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 932 160 306. Park GuellCarrer de Larrard (main entrance). Opendaily from 8:00 am-9:30 pm. Contact +34 934 091 831. La Pedrera, Passeig de Gràcia, 92. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia. Open daily: November through February 9:00 am-6:30 pm and March through November 9:00 am-8:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +34 934 845 900. La Sagrada Familia. Metro Sagrada Familia. Open daily: October through March 9:00 am-7:00 pm, April through September 9:00 am-8:00 pm and November through February: 9:00 am-6:00 pm. Contact:  tel. +34 932 073 031;
  • Budget considerations – Entrance fees to the Gaudi landmarks can get expensive. While I am not usually a fan if city passes, in this case, it could pay to research ahead the various tourist passes for Barcelona, most notably the Barcelona Pass and Barcelona Card. But do check their offerings carefully to make sure they correspond to your plans for visiting the city. You can also save money and time by booking your tickets directly from the various sites. And of course you can always walk by and enjoy the exterior of Gaudi’s buildings for free.

Location, location, location!

Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Park Güell, Barcelona

La Pedrera, Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona is said to have the most restaurants and bars per capital in Europe, which could get overwhelming. But options are easily narrowed down once you eliminate the obvious tourist traps touting all manners of paellas in multiple languages. While their quality and service can vary wildly, they often don’t make it above indifferent on either count.

Barcelona-Sensi tapas.

At Sensi Bistro, Tapas are a culinary experience.

Mercifully, the local food scene goes far beyond the upbiquitous spanish specialty. On this recent visit, we looked for intriguing “holes-in-the-wall” as we explored the city. In the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) alone, we found more promising eateries than we could possibly try during our short stay. These three delivered meals memorable for the quality and the originality of their cuisine, their outstanding service and the friendliness of their prices.

 

A New Take on Tapas

Barcelona-Sensi Salad

Mixed green salad with quinoa crackers.

Sensi Bistro is a casual, lively place that takes the traditional tapas concept to the culinary level of a gastronomic tasting menu. Each small plate is artfully presented and generous enough for two. So tempting was their menu that we ended up ordering everything that looked especially interesting – which turned out to be about half of their offerings. We ended up with a copious, somewhat random list, which our friendly waiter, Alex, tactfully  organised into a coherant, well paced menu. Only the real stand-outs are mentioned below.

Barcelona-Sensi Truffle ravioli

The peerless truffle ravioli in parmesan sauce only look plain.

We started out with a mixed greens salad with cucumbers and granny smith apple, garnished with quinoa crisps in a  coriander vinaigrette, and a tuna tartare seasoned with pleasantly hot Sriracha vinaigrette, garnished with puffed rice and chopped japanese onions. A perfect prelude for the divine truffle ravioli in parmeran cream that followed. Then came the shrimp and chorizo-stuffed squid with aioli and the roasted Iberian pork loin with demi-glace reduction and parsnip puree. Alex also showed himself a knowledgeable sommelier who recommended a superb bottle of Rioja Alavesa  2014 from Bodegas Baigorri del Garage, just the right full-bodied red to enhance our varied selections. Overall, a dining experience so satisfying that I uncharacteristically had to pass on dessert.

Creative Catalan Cuisine

Barcelona-Academia dining room.

The Cafe de l’Academiia offers delicious Catalan cuisine and romantic atmosphere.

The Cafè de L’Acadèmia is a longtime local favorite that has become an open secret in recent years for savvy visitors looking for traditional Catalan cuisine with a creative twist. Tucked away in a corner of the quaint medieval Plaça Sant Just, it combines a seasonal, market-driven menu with a generous helping of romance. The cozy dining room makes the most of its 18th century features, all rough stone walls and exposed beams, with fresh flowers, subdued lighting and unobstrusive strains of classical background music. However, the evenings being still mild when we visited in early October, we were fortunate to score one of the candle-lit table at the much coveted terrace on the pocket-size square in the shadow of the Gothic Sant Just church.

Barcelona-Academia monk fish.

The grilled monk fish with green asparagus tasted fresh out of the Mediterrean.

We started again with a mixed green salad, topped with shreds of duck liver paté this time, and a terrine of eggplant and goat cheese. A succulent rack of lamb on gratinéed potatoes and a superb grilled monk fish with green asparagus followed, paired with a bottle of powerful local red Priorat wine. A delicately tangy lemon tart topped this unpretentious, superbly prepared meal. Although the place was packed, the service was friendly and attentive. Advanced reservations are an absolute must (and a call to reconfirm a few hours ahead can’t hurt. We did to guarantee our terrace table).

A Tuscan Find

A bottle of Rosso de Montalcino is a perfect foil for parpadele with wild boar.

Osso Buco alla Sense is a Cachaca specially

Even in Catalonia, an inviting little Italian restaurant is hard to resist. We didn’t. We chanced onto Cachaca, a charming Tuscan bistro tucked in a back alley of the Barri Gòtic, just as a table was becoming available. One of their best to my way of thinking, a cozy vantage point on the tiny mezzanine at the back of the restaurant, secluded from the bustle of the packed main room.

Just about everything on their limited menu was enticing. In the end, we started with potatoe gnocchi with Porcini mushroom and saussage, and parpadele with wild boar ragout, followed by hake with pine nut-lemon sauce, and osso buco alla sense, a classic Sienese specialty. All to be shared, of course. At the waiter’s recommendation, we added their unusual naked ravioli (small meaty patties mixed with ricotta and spinach in sage butter – superb!). The home-made foccacia was irresitible and a list of excellent italian wines rounded up the menu. We chose a hearty San Giovese Rosso de Montalcino. The meal was so gratifying that it should have made a case for skipping dessert, but I have never been known to resist a good Tiramisu, and Cachaca’s definitely was that. I enjoyed every last sinful spoonful of it.

 

Good to Know

  • Sensi Bistro, Carrer Reogomir, 4, 08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1 or Liceu. Contact: Tel. +34 931 799 545. Open daily from 6:30 pm to midnight.
  • Cafè de l’Acadèmia, Carrer de Lledó, 1 Plaça Sant Just,08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1. Contact: Tel: +34  933 198 253. Open: Monday through Friday from 1:30  to 4:00 pm and 8:00  to 11:30 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday, major national holidays and three weeks in August.
  • Cachaca Italian restaurant, Carrer d’Ataülf, 5, 08002 Barcelona, Spain Contact: Tel. +34 930 19 95 69 . Open Monday through Friday from 19:00 pm to midnight, Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 to 4:00 pm and from 7:00 pm to midnight.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Sensi Bistro

Cafe de l'Academia

Cachaca