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

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

From its beginnings as a Roman-era harbor and garrison to today’s exuberant capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain, Barcelona has developed into a fascinating patchwork of architectural styles.

Barcelona-Port Vell

Barcelona is one of the busiest port cities in the Mediterranean.

Once the seat of the medieval kings of Aragon, it remained an austere gothic city until the industrial revolution generated a Modernist rebirth. Today, these successive metamorphoses can be followed along its various barrios (neighborhoods), wooing tourists with an embarrassment of riches that makes this sunny Mediterranean city one of the most visited in Europe.

 

 

Begin along Las Ramblas

Barcelona-Living statue,

The lower part of Las Ramblas is lined with living statues.

It’s Barcelona’s most famous street, a 1.2 kilometer-long (0.75 mile) pedestrian artery that runs through the center of the city from the waterfront statue of Christopher Columbus to the Plaça Catalunya (Catalonia Square), where the old city meets the Modernist 19th Eixample neighborhood. In recent decades, to cater to the throng of visitors strolling in the shade of its venerable plane trees, it has become overrun with café terraces, living statues and street vendors of all kind. But never mind that it is mainly shunned by locals these days, if you are a tourist, it’s the first landmark you identify, if only for its no-fail access to most of the major attractions of the old town.

From the waterfront, a right turn into any of the narrow side streets gets you into the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gòtic.

The Gothic Quarter

Barcelona-Gothic Quarter styles.

Centuries of architectural styles coexist in the Gothic Quarter.

Barcelona-Royal Plaza

In the heart of the neighborhood, the 19th century Royal Plaza is one of Barcelona’s favorite meeting spot.

The oldest part of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic includes remains of the roman city wall as well as a number of medieval landmarks going back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. However, the most damaged of these ancient monuments were extensively restored in early 20th century, which transformed the original somber neighborhood into a neo-Gothic tourist delight.

The maze of narrow lanes now leads into inviting squares, most notably the elegant Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), built in the mid-19th century as a luxury residential complex on a site once occupied by a Capuchin convent. Inspired by French neo-classical squares, the rectangular plaza is surrounded by identical four-story buildings raised on vaulted semi-circular arches. Today, with its soaring palm trees, central fountain and arcades lined with restaurants, bars and popular night spots, the pedestrian square is a favorite meeting venue for locals and visitors alike.

 

 

The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia

Barcelona-Cathedral

The Gothic nave of the Barcelona Cathedral.

Meander northward from Plaça Reial and within ten minutes, you come to a sprawling gothic confection rising from the highest point of the neighborhood. It’s the Barcelona Cathedral, officially knows as the Cathedral of the Holly Cross and Saint Eulalia, after a local girl who defied Roman Emperor Diocletian by refusing to recant her Christian faith. Built on the site on an earlier roman temple, its origins reach back to the early days of Christianity. The present cathedral stands on the remains of a succession of sanctuaries, with most of the current structure from the 13th century, when the construction of Gothic basilica began. As for the grand façade, it’s a flamboyant example of neo-Gothic style added in the early 20th century.

Barcelona-Saint Eulaila crypt.

In the crypt, this Renaissance sarcophagus is said to hold  relics of Saint Eulalia.

Inside, the most notable elements are the Gothic choir stalls, the crypt with its elaborate Renaissance tomb dedicated to the eponymous saint, and the 15th century cloister. In addition to its series of side chapels, the elegant cloister includes a garden, a fountain, the Font de les Oques (Fountain of the Geese), and a pond that is home to a gaggle of 13 white geese. They have been squawking here since medieval times, when they warned against intruders and thieves. Their number is explained variously as representing the age of the saint when she was martyred or that she suffered 13 tortures during her persecution.

Leaving the cloister, it’s only a few steps to the Plaça Nova (New Square), which traces back to 1358, when it was the site of the city’s hay market. It is still flanked by two of the defense towers that protected the fortified Roman colony.

The Palace of Catalan Music

Barcelona-Palace of Catalan music.

Elaborate mosaics decorate the facade of the Palace of Catalan Music.

Another short walk northward from the cathedral to the street that bears its name but is far too narrow to do it justice, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana stand it all its glory. Built at the turn of the century for Orfeó Català, a presitigious Barcelona choral society, this architectural jewel is the crowning creation of famed local Art Nouveau architect Lluis Domènech I Montanier.

Barcelona-Palau glass ceiling.

The main concert hall boasts an ornate stained glass ceiling.

Designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, it exploits natural light to create an exquisite harmony of sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork inside and out. The rich glazed mosaic decor of the façade, which incorporates traditional Spanish and Moorish architectural elements, is especially striking. The interior is equally flamboyant, particularly the main concert hall with its inverted stained glass domed ceiling. The Palace remains to this day an exceptional venue for opera and symphonic as well as folk music, and an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia.

Graze at La Boqueria

Barcelona-Boquaria fruit.

The vegetable and fruit stands are especially colorful.

Barcelona is famous as one of the foodie capitals of Europe and the Barri Gotic, one of its most visited neighborhood, offers plenty of attractive eating options. But the first de rigueur stop for connoisseurs is just across Las Ramblas, at the edge of the El Raval neighborhood. Arguably the most famous food market in all of Spain, the Mercat de Sant Joseph de la Boqueria (a.k.a La Boqueria) traces its origin back to the 13th century when it started out as a cluster of meat stalls. It settled in its current location in 1840, on a space previously occupied by a convent dedicated to St. Joseph. Its graceful Art Nouveau iron and glass structure was added in 1914.

Barcelona-Jamón Iberico

Jamón Iberico is much appreciated by gourmets throughout Spain and beyond.

In its current iteration, la Boqueria is a grid of some 200 permanent stalls selling all manners of local and exotic foodstuff. They converge on an oval plan from colorful local vegetable and fruit displays to cured meats and cheeses to fresh-out-of-the ocean seafood in the center. Those who are shopping for provisions come early, before the aisles become clogged with tourists. For the rest of us, it’s fun to graze through La Boqueria, munching on slivers of Jamón Iberico, the famed dry-cured ham from the Iberian breed pigs, or grab a stool at one of the many tapas bars sprinkled around the market. They are hugely popular so you may have to hover a while before scoring one. Then order whatever looks good in the plates of your neighbors, a glass of cava(local bubbly) or cerveza(beer) and watch the world go.

Barcelona-Panorama

The roof terrace of the luxury Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel offers a unique panoramic view of the city.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air:A number of low cost carriers, including easyJet, Germanwings, Ryanair, Transavia and Vueling connect Barcelona International Airport with most major cities in Western Europe and beyond. The airport is located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city center and easily accessible by public transportation or taxis. By train: there are multiple daily high-speed-rail connections between Barcelona and Madrid (travel time between 2.5 and three hours) and several major cities in France (travel time from Paris is 6.5 hour, Lyon 5 hours, Marseille 4 hours and Toulouse 3 hours). By sea: the city is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean for cruise ships and ferries. There are ferries from the Balearic Islands, North Africa – Tangier and Algiers, and Italy – Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Sardinia. The ferrys dock at Port Bell, at the bottom of Las Ramblas.
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot and easily walkeable. However there is also a good public transportation network of buses, trams and a modern metro system with twelve lines that provide efficient access to all parts of the city.
  • Visiting – The Cathedral, Plaça de la Seu, Barcelona, is open Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Saturday, 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm and Sunday, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Nearest metro stop: Jaume I. If time allows, a short elevator ride to the roof offers a panoramic view of the city. Palau de la Música Catalana, Carrer Palau de la Mùsica Catalana. Nearest metro:  Concert times vary throughout the year. There are guided tours  daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.  La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, 91. Nearest métro: Liceu. Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am through 8:00 pm. 
  • Staying– On this recent visit, we stayed at the Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona, my son’s favorite hotel in Barcelona, and now mine, for its unique central waterfront location within a 5 minute-walk from Las Ramblas. Built by famed Chinese-American I.M. Pei (think the Musée du Louvre Pyramid in Paris, or the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston). In addition to all the amenities and services one expects from a 5-star hotel, this luxury property offers exceptional panoramic views overd the entire city and the mountains to the horizon. Contact: e-mail reservas@grandmarinahotel.com, tel. +34 936 03 90

Location, location, location!

Barcelona, Barri Gotic

Las Ramblas

La Boqueria

Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel

Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos – Granada

Moorish Palaces and Gypsy Grottos – Granada

While the region surrounding Granada is known to have has been populated from at least the eighth century B.C., the present-day city wasn’t founded until the early eleventh century, recently by the standards of the Mediterranean basin. Three centuries into the Moors rule of the area, a civil war ended the Umayyad Caliphate. Victorious Berber general Ziri ibn Manad established an independent kingdom for himself. However, the local capital (Elvira) was located on a low plain, which as he had himself demonstrated made it difficult to protect from attacks. So the newly minted Zirid ruler decided to transport his quarters to higher grounds.

Taking to the hills

Andalusia - The Albacin Moorish neighborhood of Granada.

Albacin is the ancient Moorish medina of Granada.

The hilltop hamlet of Gárnata (altitude 738 meters) seemed a better bet. Especially since it came with an ancient military fortress (or Alcazaba) already in the neighborhood. In short order the site was transformed into one of the most important cities of Al-Andalus, as the Iberian Peninsula was then called. By the end of the eleventh century, the Alhambra had become a walled military citadel. The city itself had spread across the Darro River to include the Albaicín, a steep labyrinth of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and secluded inner gardens (or cármenes). It is this ancient Moorish medina that I choose to call home for my visit to Granada.

Granada-Alambra view.

View of the Alambra from my window at La Casa del Aljarife.

The taxi from the train station in the lower, contemporary part of the city drops me off at the bottom of the hill on Plaza Nova. It’s on foot after that, an ankle-twisting noisy walk rolling my luggage uphill over cobblestones that randomly morph into stairs. Ten sweaty minutes later, I arrive at La Casa del Aljarife and feel instantly rewarded for the climb. This tiny Bed and Breakfast is perched high on the hill, a typical narrow multi-level seventeenth century house in the far corner of the handkerchief-size Placeta de Cruz Verde. My host, Christian Most, takes over the luggage-hauling up the steep, centuries-worn stairs all the way to the fourth floor. La Casa del Aljarife has only four guest rooms. Mine is a light-filled retreat at the very top of the house, with an eye-level view of the Alhambra.

Granada-Albacin patio

The patio of our Albacin home is filled with trees in bloom.

In the morning, Christian dishes out hearty Anglo-Saxon breakfasts in the inner courtyard filled with fruit trees in blooms and bird songs. It wouldn’t take much convincing to get me to linger in the serene cármen, but the vibrant andalusian world is calling. It’s uphill again to the highest point of the Albaicín, the Plaza de San Nicolas famous for its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the snowy backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.

 

Fabulous Flamenco

Andalusia - Granada Flamenco Dancers.

Granada Flamenco Dancer.

The Albaicín is a neighborhood perfect for getting lost. I follow narrow lanes lined with hole-in-the-wall bazaar shops and eateries sending out cooking smells that speak of North African souks. My wanderings invariably lead to some tiny placeta, where I can rest my cobblestone-weary feet over sweet mint tea. This is how I come across the Jardines de Zoraya. I step in for tea in the shaded garden one afternoon, and return the next evening for great local food and even better Flamenco.

Granada has a long Flamenco tradition, in the Albaicín and even more so in Sacromonte, the historic home of the city’s thriving Roma community (often called Gypsies, or Ginatos). They settled in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Valaparaiso Hill to the north of the Alhambra in the fifteenth century, after the combined forces of Aragon and Castile finally tossed out the Moors. Sacromonte is famous for its many whitewashed caves cut into the rock, some still used as residences today. It is the home of Zambra, a Flamenco variation with a distinct oriental feel.

A pearl set in emeralds

Andalusia - Alhambra Nasrid Patio.

Patio in a Nastrid Palace in the Alhambra.

This is how Moorish poets saw the Alhambra. After days of admiring it from afar, I finally get to set foot into this sublime masterpiece of European Islamic art. The Alhambra is first of all a fortress with heavily fortified peach colored brick walls that snake around the crest of al Shabika hill. Over the centuries, succeeding dynasties expended it until it became a city onto itself, and the seat of power of the Nasrid Emirs.

The palaces that once housed the rulers and their court are deep within the walls, surrounded by a small town that was home to lesser nobility and common people, and a military area with the barracks of the royal guard. The sheer size and complexity of the site are overwhelming. After a day spent exploring every corner, awed at every turn by architectural grandeur and stunning artistic details, it is a relief to escape to the Generalife Palace.

Andalusia - Granada Generalife Patio.

Alhambra Generalife Patio.

A five-minute walk over a bridge outside the fortifications, I enter the legendary Generalife gardens. Built on the south slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun), the gardens and orchards were originally created to supply food for the Alhambra. The palace was added the fourteenth century as a summer retreat and country estate for the then Nasrid monarch, Muhammad III. Generalife is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens anywhere.

Today, the exactingly restored Alhambra and Generalife are considered a pinnacle of Moorish art and Andalusian history. They are, along with the Albaicín classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Good to know

When planning to visit the Alhambra:

  • It is prudent to purchase well tickets ahead as visitors are strictly limited to 6,600 per day. Only one-third of these tickets are set aside for day-of-visit purchase, This may seem like a lot until confronted with the endless lines at the box office.
  • Tickets are only valid for the pre-assigned day and time of visit and are not refundable
  • Only 300 visitors are allowed every half-hour by pre-determined schedule into the Nasrid Palaces.
  • Tickets may be purchased ahead at:
    • In Granada – The Alhambra shop (Tienda de la Alhambra)at 40 Calle Reyes Catolicos
    • Any ATM of La Caixa Bank
    • By phone in Spain: 902 88 80 01
    • By phone aborad: +34 958 926 031
    • They may also be purchased by internet ticketmaster.es . However Ticketmaster only has access to a limited number of tickets that are often sold out one week or more ahead of time.

Location, location, location!

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

The essence of Andalusia – From Arcos to Ronda and Cordoba

Andalusia - Arcos della Frontera.

della Frontera overlook the Guadalate River Valley.

After a week of enjoying the urban charms of Seville, a two-hour southward bus ride takes me to Arcos de la Frontera, the pearl of famous White Villages, for a taste of timeless Spanish culture. The old village clings to the very top of a narrow limestone ridge, a tangled maze of cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed medieval houses and ancient churches. From my room atop one of these historic homes, the view plunges abruptly down to the fertile valley of the Guadalate River and the rolling plain beyond. The whole place is a photographer’s paradise.

Ronda

Andalusia -Ronda and the El Tajo Gorge.

The Rio Guadalvin runs through the center of Ronda.

Another three-hour bus ride west, and I am in Ronda. I am a fan of Spanish busses. Comfortable, punctual and inexpensive, they are a great way to get from one small town to the next. Ronda is an eagle’s nest of a town famous for dramatic views and the 150 meter (500 foot) deep El Tajo gorge of the Rio Guadalvin that runs through its center. Celts, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors habited the area in turn before it was conquered by the Catholic Kings. Most left interesting marks of their presence.

Ronda and the local Romero family played a major role in the development of Spanish bullfighting as it is known today. While definitely not a supporter of the sport myself, I enjoy visiting the spectacular eighteen century Plaza de Toros. The vast bullring, 66 meter (217 foot) in diameter is surrounded by a stone passage and two layers of raised covered seating. The roof circular roof if supported by 136 pillars that hold 68 arches. The complex also houses a small museum dedicated to the sport.

Cordoba

Andalusia - Cordoba viewed from the Alcazar.

The Alcazar offers a fine view of La Mezquita and the Cordoba skyline.

The last stop of this journey is Cordoba where I can’t get enough of La Mezquita, the Great Mosque turned cathedral in the center of the historic town, considered one the most significant monuments of Moorish and Renaissance architecture. In its original mosque incarnation, it was the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus for three centuries, serving as a teaching center as well as courthouse and place of worship. The building is constructed with 865 soaring columns of granite, marble, jasper and onyx, made from pieces of the Roman temple that previously occupied the site and other repurposed nearby Roman monuments. The sanctuary also has elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. After Ferdinand III conquered Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was turned into a catholic church. A number of chapels were inserted over time within the expansive structure, most notably the colossal Renaissance cathedral nave.

Andalusia - Cordoba's gardens of the Alcazar.

Cordoba’s Alcazar Gardens.

Near the Mezquita is the old Jewish Ghetto, home to the Sephardic House and the Synagogue. Then at the southwestern edge of the old town there is the Alcazar de Cordoba. The palace was the seat of the independent Caliphate of Cordoba. Over time it expanded to become a large compound with baths, gardens and one of the largest libraries of the era. It was reconstructed and further expanded by the Christian Kings following the 1236 conquest.

So rich is the history of Andalusia and its architectural legacy that I feel this first visit has barely scratched the surface. I am already thinking of a return visit. Granada is next.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cordoba, spain

The essence of Andalusia – Seville

The essence of Andalusia – Seville

As is the case with many of the great historic cities of the Mediterranean basin, the origins of Seville are shrouded in legends. Hercules himself is said to have taken a break from his better-publicized great deeds to create the original settlement of what is now the capital of Andalusia, Spain’s southern-most region.

A complicated history

Andalusia - Seville's Torre del Oro tower.

The Moors’ Torre del Oror on the Guadalquivir River.

In the millennia that followed, others came to lend a hand in shaping the city as we know it today. It became Hispalis to the Romans after they evicted the Carthaginians. Rome undertook its customary construction program, a few remains of which endure to this day including the twin columns that dominate the vast La Alameda de Hércules Square on the north side of the city’s historic center. Then came the Vandals and the Visigoths successively, who left nothing but their usual devastation before being abruptly tossed out by the Moors in 711. This ushered in the Islamic Empire of Al-Andalus that was to endure for half a millennium, leaving a stunning architectural and artistic imprint throughout the region.

Andalusia - Seville's Arschbishop's Palace.

The Spanish Baroque Archbishop’s Palace.

Then in 1248, the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the area. The Moors’ Palace (the Alcazar) became the Castilian Royal residence still used today as the local residence of the royal family and mosques morphed into churches. Enter Christopher Columbus. Upon his return from the New World in 1493, Seville managed to co-opt the monopoly on trans-oceanic trade for its port on the Guadalquivir River. Prosperity ensued and the city became a major economic and cultural center of the Baroque era. To this day it is a unique hybrid of Islamic and European architecture and traditions, and a fascinating place to start my discovery of Andalusia.

A tale of two cultures

Andalusia - Seville's Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

The Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir.

Since my first random wanderings lead me to the bank of the Guadalquivir, I board a ship for hour-long dusk cruise. In addition to offering a beautiful panorama of both sides of the city, highlights include the Torre del Oro, a polygonal medieval watchtower originally built by the Moors as parts of the city ramparts to control river access. While the golden tile facing that gave it its name have long vanished, it still a gleams in the early evening light. Further down river the Isabel II (or Triana ) Bridge, a superb example of nineteenth century iron architecture, leads to the historic working class Triana neighborhood, famous to this day for its ceramics and flamenco music.

Andalusia -Seville's Cathedral and the Giralda.

The Santa Maria del la Sede cathedral is the largest gothic cathedral in the world.

During the next few days, I explore the area around the Cathedral (Santa Maria del la Sede), the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Its fifteenth century builders used some columns and other elements from the mosque that previously stood on the grounds, including the Giralda. Once a minaret, the 300-foot bell tower, now Seville’s iconic symbol, offers a unique view of the city. Inside the cathedral, a grand mausoleum is said to holds the remains of Christopher Columbus.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Alcazar Neptune Fountain.

Neptune Fountain in the gardens of the Alcazar.

I wander in the courtyards of the Alcazar with their lacy stone and woodworks and their intricate Islamic geometric tile works. The gardens are filled with orange trees and the trickle of countless fountains. And I lose myself in the labyrinth of medieval streets of Barrio Santa Cruz, the Jewish ghetto until the Jews were driven from Spain by the 1492 edict of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

 

Andalusia - Seville's Lebrija Palace.

The interior patio of the Lebrija Palace is paved with Romain mosaics.

The Palacio de Lebrija is an ideal refuge for a rainy day. This little known museum is a typical Sevilliano family palace built around cloistered interior patios, restyled in the nineteenth century from original sixteenth century buildings by the Condesa de Lebrija. The Countess was an avid collector and the museum houses her eclectic private collection ranging from Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Persian ceramics to Louis XIV furniture and works by Van Dyck and artists of the Murillo school.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Seville, spain