Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Home to the oldest university in continuous operation in the western world (founded in 1088), the northern Italian city of Bologna has remained over the centuries a center of culture and art. In the historic center alone, more than thirty museums illustrate the rich artistic heritage of the city. The following are my personal favorites.

The Archeological Civic Museum

Bust of Nero erected by the people of Bononia as as a sign of gratitude to the Emperor (circa 1st century B.C.).

Founded in September 1881 by merging two separate collections belonging respectively to the University and the City of Bologna, and locating them in the 15th century Palazzo Galvani, a few steps from Piazza Maggiore, the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Civic Museum) holds one of the most important archaeological collection in Italy. It is above all a major witness to the local history, from prehistoric times to the Roman age, as announced by the monumental torso of Nero dominating the central loggia of the internal courtyard. Of exquisite workmanship, the statue, depicts a figure garbed for a triumphal procession, wearing a short tunic, a loose cloak over its shoulder, and an anatomical cuirass decorated with marine creatures and the Gorgon’s head. 

Etruscan cremation crater (circa 450 B.C.) used to receive the ashes of the deceased.

The Etruscan wing constitutes the most important part of the museum. It documents the development of the local culture and especially the religious and funerary rites of Etruria, with Bologna, then known as Felsina, as its capital. A majority of the pieces, dating back from the middle of the 6th to the 4th century B.C., came from the 1869 discovery and subsequent excavation of an Etruscan necropolis on the grounds of the Certosa Cemetery, just outside the limits of the historic city.

The museum also features an interesting Egyptian collection, and for numismatic buffs, the most important collection in Italy of Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins.

The National Gallery of Bologna

Alterpiece by 14th century Bolognese master Jacopino.

To continue the journey through the artistic development of the region, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Gallery of Bologna), is an essential next stop. Located in the 17th  century former Jesuit novitiate of St. Ignatius, a few minutes from the Two Towers, it opened to the public in1885.  Entirely renovated in 1997, it is now considered one of the most modern and important National Galleries in the country. Its collection includes works from some of the leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods, such as Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carraccis, Guercino and Reni.

A custom-designed hall in the center of the Pinacoteca holds the Mezzaratta frescoes.

At its core is a unique display of frescoes and sinopias from the decorative cycle of the church of Mezzaratta, a small church just outside the city. Here, the main artists working in Bologna in the 14th and 15th centuries competed, and sometimes cooperated to create a sequence of scenes from the sacred texts.

Polyptych by brothers Vivarini (circa 15tth century).

The frescoes, hidden for many years by plaster and damaged by humidity were detached beginning in 1949 and moved to the Pinacoteca. They are housed in a dedicated hall where one room holds the final masterpieces, while the next room displays the sinopias (preparatory drawings used by artists during the design phase, tracing the elements of composition directly on the first layer of plaster) that were found under the frescoes. The display of these sinopias, allows visitors to appreciate the entire creative process, from conception to final results.

Museum San Colombano

Painted 18th century grand piano from the Tagliavini Collection.

Also a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the Church of San Colombano is an ancient monastic complex founded in the 7th century and expended over time. Deconsecrated in 1798 and restored in recent decades, it now houses the collection of musical instruments donated by Bolognese Maestro Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (1929 – 2017).

Early portable pipe organ.

This unique collection consists of over seventy pieces, mainly harpsichords, spinets, pianos, organs, clavichords and some wind instruments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. The instruments are still in working order, and used regularly for free concerts. At the time of my recent visit, an artist was practicing on an ancient spinet, while in another part of the complex a  sumptuously decorated 18th century grand piano was being tuned.

A cycle of 17th century frescoes decorates the Oratory.

The Oratory — In addition to the musical treasures on display throughout its various spaces, the complex itself is a peerless work of art. Built in the 1590’s, the upper floor Oratory is decorated with a cycle of 17th century frescoes inspired by the stories of the Passion and the Triumph of Christ by a group of artists led by Ludovico Carracci, including Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino.

The chapel was built around a 1399 painting of the Virgin.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Prayer — The chapel was also built in the 1590’s, around an image of the Virgin painted by Lippo di Dalmasio in 1399  on the outside wall of the Church of St. Colombano. The task of frescoing the new chapel was  entrusted to the best pupils of the Carracci brothers.The painted scenes are inspired by episodes from the New Testament.

Detail of the 13th century Christ Crucified discovered in the Crypt of the San Colombano complex.

The Crypt — In 2005, the restoration works of the San Colombano complex revealed the existence of a late medieval crypt. Here, a fresco portraying “Christ crucified between Our Lady and St. John” was the most signifcant discovery. Despite having been severely damaged, the painting is still of high quality, not only for the realism of the subject’s expression but also in the use of colors, all of which survived centuries of underground burial. The work is attributed to Giunta Pisano, a pivotal Italian artist of the 13th century.

The Certosa Monumental Cemetery

The 19th century Neoclassical Seventh Cloister.

Detail of early 20th century Art Nouveau tomb.

Bronze sculpture on mosaic backdrop by Pasquale Rizzoli, the Magnani Chapel is a fine examples of Italian Liberty style.

One of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Europe, the Certosa di Bologna was established in 1801 on the grounds of an ancient Carthusian monastery just outside of the historic city limits. By the 1830’s, in addition to using the remaining structures of the existing monastery, the cemetery began to be enriched with new spaces and cloisters, until it took the labyrinthine aspect of an open-air museum, with exceptional decorations and funeral monuments. 

Not to be missed are the Third and Seventh Cloisters. The Renaissance Third Cloister was the first to accommodate tombs of the new public cemetery. Many of the monuments  here were entrusted to the most respected sculptors and painters of the period. 

Built in the later part of the 19th century, the grandiose Neoclassical Seventh Cloister features a central nave with a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling. Here the monuments, which memorialize a number of of nationally famous local figures (including the Marconi family), are a comprehensive repertory of 19th and 20th century Bolognese sculpture, and include a number of remarkable Art Nouveau tombs.

Also worth noting at the center of the complex, two monumental stone domes mark the two vast underground circular areas of the Ossuary of the Great War. It contains the remains of 2,906 Italian soldiers (of which about 500 are from the city and province of Bologna) and 140 Austro-Hungarians.

Good to Know

  • Getting there By Air: There are scheduled flights to Bologna International Airport from most major European cities. By train: High speed trains connect the center of the Bologna to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high-speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. By road: The A1 highway efficiently connects the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — Museo Civico Archeologico /, Via dell’Archiginnasio 2, 40124 Bologna. Open Wednesday through Monday from  10:00 am to 7:00pm. Closed on Tuesday, May 1, December 25  and 31. Contact: tel. + 39 051 2757211, e-mail . Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Via delle Belle Arti 56, 40126 Bologna. Open Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, and Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday and December 25.  Contact: tel. +39 0514209442, e-mail. Museum San Colombano — Collezione Tagliavini , Via Parigi 5, 40121 Bologna. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: tel. +39 05119936366, e-mail. Certosa di Bologna , Via della Certosa, 18 – 40133 Bologna. Open March 1 to November 2 from  7:00 am to 6:00 pm and November 3 to  February 28/29 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: tel. ++39 051 6150840, e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy

Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Although Bologna is widely recognized as one of most remarkable Medieval cities in Italy, it is also one of the most important centers of the Italian Renaissance period. Nowhere can its historic and artistic evolution be better appreciated than in its many magnificent churches

The churches of Bologna dazzle with Renaissance art works.

Wander along its network of Porticoes, the ubiquitous arcades that have been woven into the fabric of the city since the13th century. They are sure to lead to a picturesque piazza, usually dominated by an ancient church. Here are my personal favorites, all within an ten-minute walk from the central Piazza Maggiore.



Basilica of San Stefano

Early fresco at the Complex of San Stefano.

By far the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Stefano. Reaching back to the 5th century and the early days of christianity in Italy, its origins are controversial. According to the most accepted theory, it was build by Petronius, then Bishop of Bologna (dead circa 450 AD), on the ruins of a pre-existing temple dedicated to Isis — a major Egyptian goddess whose whose worship had subsequently spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.


The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher — The original sanctuary, a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, is a small circular space with rising columns, high up arched windows and  a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure, part altar, part tomb, flanked by a spiral staircase, and topped with a simple crucifix.  Upon his death, Petronius was buried there.

A simple crucifix adorns the domed choir of the Church of the Holy Crucifix

Additional sanctuaries were constructed, all in different styles, over the next six centuries.The San Stefano complex became known as “Sette Chiese” (Seven Churches). While the moniker still endures, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches, each a striking example of the evolution of religious Romanesque  architecture.



Church of the Holy Crucifix – 16th century frescoes of Saints Vitale and Agricola frame the altar.

Church of the Holy Crucifix — The only entrance to the complex is through the 8th century Church of the Holy Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it consists of a single nave with a trussed vault and a raised presbytery. At the center of the presbytery, the Crucifix, by Simone dei Crocifissi dating back to about 1380. On the walls, there are 15th century frescoes with the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Under the presbytery, at the far end of the crypt, an altar hold two urns containing the remains of local martyrs: Saints Vitale and Agricola (305 AD). On the sides of the altar, a few years ago, two 16th century frescoes were discovered under layers of plaster, illustrating the martyrdom of Vitale and Agricola.

Sarcophagus of San Vitale

Church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola — The oldest of the complex, this simple 4th century basilica-shaped church without a transept, is dedicated to saints Vitale and Agricola, respectively servant and master, the first two martyrs from Bologna. Extensively rebuilt in 12th century, it still hold the medieval sarcophagi that once held the remains of the saints, and on the floor, a mosaic of Roman origin.

The Courtyard of Pilate.

Church of the Trinity — Originally intended by Petronius as a major basilica to duplicate Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was never completed (probably due to lack of funds), With the advent of the Lombards, it became a Baptistery, with a remarkable central marble basin and intricate brickworks, in what is now known as the Courtyard of Pilate. Then the Benedictines added a superb cloister with dual storied arcaded loggia (10th -13th centuries). The current church was added in the 13th century, and substantially altered several times since. The church displays statues representing the Adoration of the Magi, also thought to be from the 13th century, and a number of fragments of lovely 14th century frescoes.

Basilica of San Petronio

The ornate base of the facade of the Basilica of San Petronio.

Dominating the Piazza Maggiore and dedicated to Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, the Basilica of San Petronio is the most imposing  — and the most visited — church in the city. Built between 1388 and 1479, its main facade has remained unfinished ever since.  It is the largest church built of bricks in the world. The facade appears cut in half: the base is an opulent creation of rose and white marble, with steeples and decorative sculptures over the portals, then right above it, it’s just plain brown bricks.

The soaring Gothic nave of the Basilica of San Petronio

The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. Its light-filled nave is lined by 22 side chapels decorated with works by prominent Italian painters and sculptors from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although Petronius was originally buried in the San Stefano complex, a conflict arose after his canonization and the construction of the Basilica of San Petronio, as to the resting place of the saint’s relics. Eventually, the head of the saint was placed in the Chapel of Cardinal Aldrovandi, now Chapel of San Petronio.

Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore

Bentivoglio Chapel -Vision of the Apocalypse (Lorenzo Costa).

Located on Piazza Rossini, one of the most attractive squares in Bologna, the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore was built in the mid-13th century and renovated at the end of the 15th century, which accounts from its Romanesque exterior and Gothic interior. Its single monumental nave houses a wealth of art treasures, most notably in the 15th century Bentivoglio Chapel, regarded as one of the most significant creations of the early Bolognese Renaissance. In addition to the white marble tomb of A.G. Bentivoglio by Jacopo della Quercia, its walls are covered with artwork by Lorenzo Costa, depicting the family’s victories over other Bolognese dynasties.

The wedding of Saint Cecilia (Francesco Franzia).

Santa Cecilia Oratorio Flanking the Basilica, an elegant Renaissance portico leads to the Santa Cecilia Oratorio, enriched with ten splendid frescoes depicting episodes from the life of the saint and her husband San Valeriano. The paintings were executed in 1504-1506 by some of the most important artists of the Bentivoglio court.




Basilica of San Domenico

The shrine of San Domenico is an early work of Michalengelo.

Another of Bologna’s most notable churches, the Basilica of San Domenico holds the remains of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. The tomb is on a raised white marble shrine by Nicola Fisano and the young Michelangelo. The basilica also boasts a remarkable 102 stalls wooden choir that is an exquisite example of Renaissance carving by Dominican Friar Domiano da Bergamo, and magnificent Baroque ceilings


The tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri on Piazza San Domenico.

The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. Here, in addition to a brickwork column holding a bronze statue of St Dominic (1627),  two platforms raised on high columns hold the tombs Rolandino de’ Passeggeri by Giovanni (1305) and on the left, adjoining a house, the tomb of Egidio Foscarari (1289), enriched with an ancient Byzantine marble arch with relief works from the 9th century.



Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita

The terracotta figure of Mary Magdalene (Niccolò dell’Arca).

Built in the late 17th century on the foundations of an earlier church, the late Baroque-style Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life) is especially notable as the home of Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), This haunting terracotta masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture by Niccolò dell’Arca was created during the second half of the 15th century and has been in the church ever since. It features six life-sized figures hovering over the dead Christ, their faces in various stages of grief and torment. The pathos of the scene is magnified by the howling figure of Mary Magdalene entering the scene with her robe and veil flapping in the wind.

Fragment of ancient fresco at the Basilica of San Domenico

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport receives scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — San Stefano complex , Via Santo Stefano, 24 – 40125 Bologna, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and  2:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday Contact: Tel. +39 0514983423. E-mail. Basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Galvani, 5 – 40124, Bologna is open daily from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 051231415. E-mail.  Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore, Piazza Rossini – 40126, Bologna is open Monday through Friday from 07:30 am to12:00 noon and 3:30 pm to 6.:30 pm, Saturday from 9:30 am – to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to  6:30 pm, Sunday and holidays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6.:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 05 122 5970. E-mail. Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 10 – 40124, Bologna is open  Tuesday through Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. +39 05 119 936385.

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy

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

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

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

The First Museum of Art

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

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

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

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


The Golden Age of English Painting

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

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

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

A Reynolds – Gainsborough Face-off

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

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

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



From the Old to the New Generation

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

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

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

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

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

A Newfound Appreciation of Nature

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Watercolor Painting

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

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

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

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

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


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

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Musée du Luxembourg

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

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

An Albaicin Hideaway

The Albaicin is a maze of steep cobbled lanes.

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

Our terrace overlooks the Alhambra.

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

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

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

The Nasrid Legacy

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

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

The Alcazaba

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

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

The Nasrid Palaces

The Nasrid Palaces offer exquisite exemples of Islamic architecture.

The Harem open onto private courtyards.

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

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

The Generalife

The Generalife is a secluded summer palace.

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

The Alhambra and Generalife loom over the Granada landscape.

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!


Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

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

The Roman bridge was part of the Via Augusta.

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




The Mesmerizing Mezquita

The courtyard features a traditional grove of citrus trees.

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



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

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

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

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

Intricate cupsed arches surround the mihrab.

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


A Royal Stronghold

The Alcázar has retained its massive fortifications.

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

The chapel now holds a display of Roman mosaics.

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

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

The Gardens of the Alcázar

The upper level basin collects water from nearby mountains.

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

The gardens are designed around spectacular pools.

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

The Juderia

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

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

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


Good to Know


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

Location, location, location!