Friday, May 6, 2011

Budapest II: Turkish Baths & Ballet

I had a late start this morning for the sole purpose how good my three-inch, scratchy hostel bed felt. No lie; I kept snoozing for what must've been two hours. Anyway, today I planned on staying on the Buda side for the entire day. I walked over to Castle Hill (itself an hour's task) and reclimbed the winding trails and staircases that we'd done yesterday on our walking tour. Once at the top, though, I had free rein to explore and take pictures on my own. None of the museums in the former royal palace were rated that highly by Frommer's, so I just walked around and took pictures in the palace complex. The real attraction on Castle Hill is the St. Matthias Church, this ancient little cathedral nestled in the medieval neighborhood atop Castle Hill. It's particularly renowned for its bright porcelain tile roof; it's geometric patterns have inspired similar roofs all over Budapest and beyond. Built centuries and centuries ago, it was the royal church used for coronations until Buda fell to the Turks in 1541 and it became a mosque until the Christians recaptured the city in 1686. The church was repainted on the inside with a bunch of great paintings depicting the Ottoman wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There's also a statue of the Virgin and Child in one of the chapels that has an interesting story behind it: after the conquest in 1541, the Muslims bricked up a wall in front of the statue during their modifications of the church to outfit it as a mosque. Over a hundred years later, as the Muslims defended Castle Hill from the Holy Alliance besieging it, a cannon impact so shook the church that the wall in front of the Virgin statue crumbling, revealing to the Muslim defenders a fantastic Christian statue that they interpreted as a miracle. Thinking the Christians had divine favor for their conquest, the Muslims panicked and abandoned their defenses, letting the Christians win a decisive victory and retake the city.

I digress with historical anecdotes once again. After taking my time exploring the Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion outside (a decorative castle ramparts and towers that are more decorative than they are defensive), I went to a little cafe overlooking the Danube and Pest. I got a sweet menu of the day deal where, for like 18 bucks, I was able to get goulash soup, a paprika-drenched chicken breast, and strudel. The goulash and the chicken were both excellent Hungarian dishes. Post-lunch, I wandered down from Castle Hill and made my way south along the Danube (still on the Buda side) toward the Turkish Rudash baths.

Talk about a cultural experience. These baths are the second-oldest in Budapest, built by the Turks in the 1500s. As so, they are still very Turkish in their operations; bathing suits are not permitted and the sexes are strictly separated by days of the week. I checked in and they gave me a magnetic wristwatch, in order to access my locker, and a loincloth. Nice. I got changed, per se, (more like undressed) and made my way to the thermal baths. They were inside this big octagonal room with Roman vaults and a big dome in the center. In the same fashion as the 10th century caliphal baths I saw in Cordoba, the domed roof had rings of holes cut into the rock; holes shaped like stars of David (ironic) and covered with a colored stained glass. The result was this great selection of vibrant colors radiating down onto the pools. There was one big octagonal pool in the center and then smaller ones, all varying in temperature, in the corners. They went in order of 28, 30, 33, and 42 degrees Celsius. The big one in the center was probably somewhere in the 37 range. I had no idea, though, until I would actually get into one and then I'd see the tiny plaque with the temperature reading. The entire time, I was trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing, so when I got into a bath that was piping hot I had to mask my agony and pretend that that's what I wanted the entire time. Same thing when I'd then walk into an ice-cold bath and nearly scream. I knew from the caliphal baths in Cordoba that the order you're supposed to go in is from cold to hot, so once I figured out which baths were which I tried to do it as the Turks - and now Hungarians - do it. It just took a lot of patient observation of who went from what pool to what. It was a little bit weird, trying to keep tabs of all the old fat naked Hungarian men, but I was convinced I was going to learn the system! In side rooms, there were also hot rooms of various temperatures and steam rooms with different temperatures and aromas. When you came out of one of the hot rooms (usually they were very, very hot like 70 Celsius) you would walk into one of the shower stalls and pull this rope, tipping over a bucket of frigid water on you and scaring the hell out of your body. I think I almost went into shock a couple of times switching temperature like that, but it's what you're supposed to do! The whole essence of the baths is to get out your impurities and find relaxation. I didn't find relaxation going from icy to piping hot, although I did thoroughly enjoy floating in the pools of more moderate temperatures.

After a while, it was time for my massage that I'd ordered when I checked in. It was not so much of a massage like I would be used to as a muscle workdown. The guy said that I would feel better tomorrow, but it was going to hurt today. Haha. I spent 30 minutes getting my muscles pounded in by this guy's elbow, and then I went back for another hour of the bath circuit. By the time that I got showered, changed, and walked out the door I'd spent close to 3 hours there. Best $34 I've ever spent though! Walking out onto the bridge and crossing the Danube, the brisk wind just felt really good. I think that the impurity-ridding aspect really took place because I felt thoroughly re-energized. I had just enough time when I got back to the hostel to change into theatre clothes and head out through the Jewish quarter to Andrassy Boulevard and the Hungarian Royal Opera House.

I'd bought tickets the day before for Giselle, a French ballet being performed at the Opera house. I'd never been to a ballet before, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Having searched on the internet for the plot, however, I was informed as to what was going on since I couldn't read the Hungarian program. I was up in the third deck, in the cheap seats, but I rented a pair of binoculars (which I could've just as easily done without) and posted up there in the third row. I had a perfect view of the right half of the orchestra pit and was able to see the entire stage, which is more than most people with side boxes can. I ended up really really liking it, however. There's no language barrier when there's no language! Plus the dancers were really talented. Made for a very pleasant evening. Got a kebab on the way back to the hostel and then turned on Gladiator with a few people. As sleepy as I was after those relaxing baths and the opera, I can never say no to that movie. Overall great day!

Budapest I: City Introduction

I got to Budapest, as previously indicated, on the night train from Belgrade and thus got in really early. After a much-needed nap in my new hostel, I set out with some other travelers from my place on a walking tour of the city. I'd done a lot of research, so I was more than well-prepared to plow out on my own, but the hostel guy was insistent that it was the best walking tour of all time. I ended up regretting doing it, unfortunately, just because it used up 3 hours of solid tourist time and made me climb the big hill on the Buda side of the river that I was planning on doing in more detail the following day. Usually I take those walking tours for the little fun tidbits and stories about the city but they didn't do a whole lot of that. But oh well.

As soon as I ventured out on my own, I realized just how massive Budapest is, and probably why the walking tour covered so little even in 3 hours. Budapest is relatively new, per se, in that the combined city was only formed in 1872. Before that, it used to be three separate entities of Buda (the west side), Pest (the east side), and Obuda ("Old Buda" on the NW side). After the walking tour, I was set on going to take a 2:00 tour of Parliament. Around 1:25 I set off on what I thought was a little walk up the Danube. I was convinced that in 30 minutes, I could get up the Danube, across the St. Margaret Island bridge, and back down the Danube (I was inconveniently placed in the direct middle point between two bridges) to Parliament. Wrong. Budapest is absolutely massive. Come 2:00, I'm still hustling across the bridge. Luckily, however, when I arrived at Parliament at 2:15 there was a delayed English-speaking guided tour leaving precisely then. The Parliament tour was short but sweet, and although we didn't go through much of the huge building (2nd largest in the world only after Westminster) we saw the parliamentary meeting chamber and some of the grand entrance halls. There was also a huge octagonal hall that is the center of the symmetrical building, where surrounded by busts of the past Hungarian kings, the coronation jewels are kept. Hungary boasts the oldest coronation jewels still used today, with parts of the crown as old as 1031 (within 40 years of Hungary even coming to Europe). So that was pretty neat. Afterward, I couldn't really walk around the grounds taking pictures because of the security "threat" that would've created, but I nabbed a few. It looks very similar to Westminster in its Neo-Gothic architecture. Only, instead of gold, it's all white with red roofs.

By now, I was pretty hungry so I walked back south to the plaza in front of the St. Stephan's basilica, where we'd gone on the walking tour and where I noticed there were a whole lot of cafes and restaurants. I settled on this one place based on their prices and was pleasantly surprised; I got as my main dish what were described as "meat-filled pancakes," but in reality it was like a non-sweet crepe/enchilada material that was stuffed with goodness inside with a sour cream sour layered on top. Looked kind of nasty but tasted delicious. Apparently the Hungarian cuisine is just meat, sour cream, and paprika - but I like it so far.

Nothing is open, tourist-wise, in Budapest past 6, and already it was 4 o'clock and I was by St. Stephan's with no tourist destination within a reasonable walking distance. Thus, I opted to just check out the basilica, which took 30 or 45 minutes, and then find a cafe and read for a bit. At Frommer's suggestion, I walked down Vaci utca, one of the main shopping and people-watching streets, until I found a suitable place. I had dessert and coffee there but after an hour this cold wind from the Danube kicked in and I was scrambling for the bill to get moving again. After getting back to the hostel, I was pretty tired from the whole night train experience (even after a short nap) so I just unpacked and went to bed after watching parts of a movie in the common room. Good first day in Budapest, and I learned the lesson of how long it takes to get from A to B in this massive city.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lazy Day in Belgrade & Night Train to Budapest

The next day nothing was open again, just like the day before, because of Communist 3-day labor day celebrations. I resolved to take my book to one of the outdoor cafes on the main pedestrian street, Prince Mikhail, and just take it easy. I had a nice low-key lunch and coffee there, before I strolled ever-so-slowly through the grounds of the Kalemegdan, the ruined Serbian/Ottoman/Austrian fortress that occupies the highest part of Belgrade and is now a great public park. I walked the walls and the grounds of the old fortress, a task that itself took a fair amount of time, before setting up camp on one of the walls dangling my legs over toward the Danube. It was a real pretty location, where the Danube - coming from Budapest, and before that the German Black Forest - meets the Sava - coming from Slovenia and Croatia - and makes a big island in the middle. Kayakers and people were out boating on the river, and from my high perch it was a good backdrop to reading. All sorts of people were taking their holiday in the Kalemegdan and were hanging out, drinking beers, having picnics, etc etc. It was one of those places, like the Tuilerie gardens in Paris, that I would always take my book to if it was in my home town.

I burnt hours there, since there was nothing better for me to do until my night train left Belgrade for Budapest. Speaking of which, I was a little bit anxious for my night train; a ton of people had told me about how cautious you have to be on a sleeper train because random people jump on when the train is stopped and prowl looking for easy theft. However, I lucked out big time in that the train was relatively empty, and although I'd paid for a bed in a room with two or three beds, I was the only person in it. I had the whole thing to myself and, more importantly, could just lock myself in and go to bed. Minus the two passport checks at the Serbian and Hungarian borders, I slept like a baby. Good thing I'd set my alarm, though, because the employee that promised to wake me up when we got to Budapest certainly did not do so. I woke up to my alarm as we were coasting into the station and I had to throw my belongings together, get dressed, and hop off. Found my way to my hostel, checked in, and then - seeing that it was only 5:30 am - settled down for a nap.

Belgrade: Bad Timing

After the smuggling adventure on the Balkan Express train from Sofia to Belgrade, I got into the capital of Serbia late, around 10:00pm, even after the one hour negative time change. So much for Eastern Europe's train efficiency matching that of Spain. I was pretty tired still, from my late night out clubbing in Sofia the night before (even though I slept the first four hours on the train), so I pretty much unpacked and went to bed that first night so that I could be fresh to tackle Belgrade in the morning.

When I woke up and talked to my hostel guy, however, I learned that my plans for Serbia were pretty much all for naught. Serbia still celebrates a heavy, three-day version of Labor Day that's leftover from the Communist era. Pretty much everything shuts down except for parks and churches, so no museums or anything of the sort was going to be open the entire time I was there. However, I thought that - only being there for two full days - I could just take it easy and have a legit vacation.

The hostel guy recommended a walking tour - something that was surprisingly still going on with the holiday - so I showed up for that. The tour was not all that impressive, in that the guide obviously didn't want to be working that day and showed next to zero enthusiasm for his city. However, two good things about the walking tour were that 1) it gave me some ideas of places to come back to and 2) met a group of five other people who were traveling and made for good conversation. I went with these three Brits and two Argentine girls - all young people - and we went to the Bohemian gypsy neighborhood, Skadarska, for beers. We enjoyed each other's company enough that we agreed after a few hours to break up for showers and then meet back up in Skadarska to find somewhere to eat dinner.

A few hours later, we met back up and settled on this traditional, multi-course Serbian restaurant that our guide had recommended (one of the few things he actually did). We all went in on a massive group platter thing, so that we could all try a bunch of different stuff. The waiter started us off with some more pre-dinner rakia brandy - just like in Bulgaria - that was too strong and nasty for me but drank my portion to be respectful. Next, he brought us out all these cold cuts and other Serbian appetizers, one of which was like a pastry stuffed with spinach and cream cheese (surprising but tasty). Lastly, because afterward we had no room for dessert, was this massive assortment of meats: chicken breasts, a lot of pork, a lot of sausage, and a huge platter of beef bones. He also brought bowls and bowls of delicious goulash, and oily potatoes, and garlic-drizzled peppers. Kind of like Bulgarian cuisine, Serbian cuisine was very simplistic but hearty and absolutely delicious.

The Argentine girls left after that to catch an overnight bus to Sarajevo, and the two Brits that were a couple went home and went to bed (they'd come on the night train from Budapest and had only arrived that morning). The last Brit and I went for some beers at a pub down the way, and then we made moves trying to find some of these clubs down by the Danube riverside. However, all of them were closed because of the holiday. We managed to ask the right person, however, for directions: a Serbian kid who'd graduated from the University of Hawaii and spoke excellent English; he took us out for the rest of the night and introduced us to all his friends. He even took us to the one club that was still open, apparently. So that's how the night ended up.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Smuggling Aboard the Balkan Express

So today, nothing on the agenda but the 9-hour train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia. Good as much, since it was pretty dreary and rainy throughout the whole region. I was accompanied by three Slovenians on their way home via Belgrade, so I wasn't completely alone navigating the confusing Soviet train station.

The train system here couldn't be farther from Spain, haha. We are riding in these WW2-era trains, that aren't reliably on time, where no one abides by their assigned seat, pedal-operated trap-door toilet, etc etc. It wasn't as run down as the train from Cairo to Luxor we took last spring break, but it was close.

However, I was in for a funny an interesting surprise; all the other people in my cabin, along with numerous others throughout the train, were professional smugglers! They go to Bulgaria with cheap Serbian cigarettes, sell them, and on the return journey come back laden with cheap Bulgarian sunglasses and shoes. We were in the cabin with literally a three-generation network of smuggling. This old woman was running the whole enterprise, and her son and granddaughter - around high school age - were taking orders from her. One of the Slovenians, a girl named Melita, was sitting next to me and relayed these people's conversations to me after they'd left the train en route. But the first hour worth of the train ride, they were packaging these sunglasses and shoes and wrapping them together in packing tape and then stowing them around the cabin. Once the customs officers came and swiped everyone's passports at the Serbian border, though, they were able to operate "in the open," per se. At one point, they asked if Melita and I would get up from our seats for a moment. When we did, they pulled the seats off and removed the bulk of their smuggling booty: tubs and tubs of goat cheese!! Hahah. Exceptionally cheap in Bulgaria, apparently it can be pawned off as nicer stuff in Serbia and sold for a high price. It was just hilarious because of how many tubs there were - maybe twenty or thirty of those buckets that you can buy cookie dough in back in the States. They blatantly gave the station people some Euros when they disembarked somewhere in Serbia, and that was that. Haha - a little up close taste of the corruption and bribery that's the main reason Serbia isn't allowed to join the E.U. for.

Once those people left after the Serbian border crossing, Melita and I had the cabin to ourselves and we were able to put our feet up and sleep for a bit. Overall, it wasn't nearly as bad a train travel experience as Frommer's implied it was good to be. Plus, we all learned a valuable lesson: don't buy goat cheese out of unlabeled white buckets in Serbia; it's not as high quality stuff as you might believe! Ha.

Sofia, Bulgaria Pt. III

Harkening back to our group trips last spring, I decided this morning to do the hostel's free walking tour. After two days of walking around the city, I figured that I would have already seen most of the sites, but usually on those things the guide tells you a bunch of quirky stories and little nuggets of history that you couldn't find on Wikipedia. At the hostel beforehand, I met this 25 year old guy that went to the University of Wisconsin, so we had some common ground and ended up sticking together for the majority of the day.

The walking tour was good and finally gave me a reliable opportunity to ask people to take pictures of me and the sites - praise Jesus! No more spewing it broken Slavic trying to get a local to snap one of me: try your hand at "Suhzahlyavam - Ne razbeeram Bulgarski; govoreete lee Angliski?" and see how that goes.

After the tour, I milled around with the Wisconsin guy, Mike, in the flea market outside the big St. Alexander Nevski cathedral. I wanted to buy an Orthodox religious icon or two as interesting art pieces for my - knock on wood - future library room, especially since so many of my books are on medieval history and I have a three-part map of the Byzantine Empire already. Althogh there were countless options, I don't really have any connection to any Saints, so I just got a nice wooden painted portrait of Christ. Also, for their connection to history, I got a second icon featuring St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the two Byzantines sent to Bulgaria to come up with an alphabet for the Slavs (Cyrillic) in order to accelerate their conversion to Christianity and promote the Orthodox church there. All the pieces this guy had are copies of icons in monasteries or churches somewhere around Bulgaria - not that I'd seen the originals however. But, in sharp contrast to the $200somethingplus I paid for my big Arabic painting in Cairo, I was able to get these two pieces for 40 euros; an excellent bargain and further proof of Bulgaria's fantastic price disparity. No wonder its top tourist destination for Europeans right now.

Mike and I grabbed some lunch on one of Sofia's biggest shopping streets and then hopped in a cab to go to the suburb of Boyana, where the National History Museum is. They had a pretty good collection of Thracian, Roman, and medieval Bulgarian stuff and it made for a good hour and a half worth of exploring. After that, we just went back tithe hostel. I had the free spaghetti dinner again, and then we went out to a club with some Brits and New Zealand guys also staying at Hostel Mostel.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sofia, Bulgaria Pt. II (Rila Monastery)

This morning, I went on a hostel-sponsored tour deep into the Bulgarian countryside to Rila Monastery. It was a nice, small group, just two Austrian girls, myself, and our Bulgarian driver. As we moved out of the city, the first thing I noticed was how green the entire countryside was; just two weeks ago there was a foot of snow on the ground, and the snowmelt has really made the whole landscape flourish. Our driver said that in another week or two, everything will be even greener as the temperature continues to rise.

After around an hour and a half of driving, we started snaking through narrow valley roads as we got deeper into the mountains. We started going through small villages and towns that, apart from power lines and some run-down farm machinery, could have been from the 1800s. Dogs and donkeys foraged alongside the road. The whole area was like being transported back in time, hundreds of years. We passed big, tilled brown fields where people were planting by hand. We passed herds of cattle and goats grazing without any fences, old women walking down the road with hoes or sacks slung over their shoulders, and groups of people eating at outdoor restaurants sitting on stools fashioned from thick logs. The villages of Rila and Pastra were the closest to the monastery and life looked especially aesthetic there.

We drove more uphill now, deeper into the mountains and through a landscape criss-crossed by streams that tumbled over white, polished stones in thousands of miniature rapids. Every so often we'd pass by a narrow waterfall cascading down the hill from the snow-capped peak above. Pine trees gave way to other trees, like white-flowered myrtles, closer to the roadway below.

We parked at the dead end of a dirt road and got out to climb up the mountain to a little bit. A hundred meters or so above the road there lies the cave that St. Ivan/John, the patron saint of Bulgaria and called the Wonderworker, lived in solitude as a monk for seven years. His piety was quite strong and many miracles had been attributed to him, so much so that the king of Bulgaria, Tsar Peter I went to pay homage to St. Ivan outside of Rila. St. Ivan did not want to feel overly proud or vain by being the subject of a kingly visit, so he and the king humbly bowed to each other from a distance. He rejected the many gifts the king had brought and instead urged Tsar Peter I to spend them on the defense of Bulgaria and the protection of her peoples.

We climbed into the cave, where there was a small alter with an icon of St. Ivan, illuminated by several candles. Handwritten notes scribbled on scraps of paper were placed in the walls in cracks in the stone, as people believe their wishes will be granted if they ask them of St. Ivan in this fashion. Furthermore, going into the cave to pay homage to St. Ivan supposedly cleanses one's sins from the penitence paid.

There was also a magnificent little chapel next to the cave entrance with some splendid old fresco paintings on the walls and various icons of Jesus, the Virgin, St. Ivan and others on display in the church's two small rooms. I lit a few candles here and then we climbed back down through the forest to our car to go to the actual monastery.

St. Ivan, the cave dweller, never lived in the monastery at Rila but he attracted so many followers that they built the monastery in Rila to be nearer to the place of his piety and devotion. Plus, it's overall just a gorgeous place to have a monastery. Bordered by pine forests and snow-capped mountains on all sides, the monastery was a square shape, with four stories of cloisters forming the perimeter with a typical domed Orthodox church and bell tower in middle of the central courtyard. I spent a little while slowly perusing the grounds before going into the church, the outside of which was completely decorated with more magnificent frescoes, all clearly in the old Orthodox style adapted from Byzantium (who converted the Slavic Bulgars and invented the Cyrillic alphabet to accomplish this purpose). The inside was even nicer; it was a five-domed structure in the shape of a cross with the largest dome in the center. Saints and biblical images covered the walls in frescoes, and icons and candelabras were placed everywhere throughout for veneration and reflection. I pondered the art inside for a little while, and ten I lit a few candles here as well.

I had lunch at a little restaurant nearby that our drier had recommended, before the four of us headed back to Sophia through the majestic green countryside. Overall, fantastic day and perhaps my favorite of the entire trip so far. The scenery was purely amazing and everything about the mountains, especially the crisp, cold air, just took my breath away. I could have stayed in Rila with a good book and a cup of coffee for a lot longer than we had there. Ended up just making smalltalk with some other travelers in the hostel over dinner and our conversation extended past midnight. Hence, another tame evening, but I enjoyed talking to some retiree Australian guys that have criss-crossed the globe and had a lot of useful backpacker wisdom to share. Hopefully I'm as well-traveled as those guys by the time I'm there age, but I also hope I've made enough money to stay in hotels when I go!

Sofia, Bulgaria Pt. I

This morning I went to the airport in Madrid for my 10:45 flight to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Before arriving, I was admittedly a little bit intimidated by the new alphabet and the Slavic language that I would have no basis for picking up, unlike Spanish or Italian. I had my Frommer's guidebook and learned the Cyrillic symbols and as many useful phrases as I could on the flight. However, once we touched down it became pretty evident that English would often be recognized, and where it wasn't, German should suffice. Since the airport had no metro connected to it, I took a cab into central Sofia, but we made slow progress because of a strike going on. Petrol prices have gone up in Bulgaria like everywhere else, but they just have a penchant for striking, I guess. Not as bad as the Greeks, who seem to make yearlong careers out of striking, but my cab driver made it seem like the Bulgarians go on strike relatively often as well. Ironically, the protesters were protesting higher petrol prices but slowly parading their cars around the city's major roads, honking their horns and making traffic awful for everyone. Who knows how much those people spent in gasoline money that day. Idiots.

I checked into Hostel Mostel on Makedonia boulevard, which turns out was a super legit place; I couldn't have picked a better hostel. I immediately got signed up for a 20 euro day trip to Rila Monastery for the following day. I threw my stuff down and grabbed a hostel map to go look at whatever I could before the sun went down; my first stop was the massive St. Alexander Nevski cathedral across the center of town. I noticed along the way that Sofia is just absolutely dotted everywhere with Orthodox Churches. Although originally under the Greek Orthodox Church based in Constantinople, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declared itself an independent patriarchate (to the chagrin of Constantinople) as early as the 900s, making it the first separate Orthodox Church. The Russian influence in Sofia is also evident in the St. Nicholas Russian Church right across the way from Alexander Nevski Cathedral. However, the majority of Bulgarian's citizens are followers of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

I really enjoyed Sofia right from the get go in the sense of how different it was. Different alphabet, crazy-sounding language, overall different look to public buildings and churches, etc. However, it wasn't TOO different to make an unfamiliar traveler feel clueless and helpless. This optimal-strangeness idea is something that I also experienced in Cairo, where I was still able to communicate and get where I was going and do what I needed to do, all the while surrounded by a relatively alien culture and language that was new to the senses.

It was into the patriarchal seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, that I made my first visit (mostly because everything else seemed closed for the day, for by this time it's after 5). After Russia helped Bulgaria win its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (in what we call the Crimean War), Bulgaria paid tribute to Russia by building this cathedral and naming it after the most famous Russian historical religious figure, St. Alexander Nevski, a pious prince who defeated the Teutonic Knights in their incursions into Muscovy (before Russia was Russia). The Cathedral is typical of Greek Orthodox Churches in its structure (a five-domed structure in the shape of the cross) and its brilliant mosaic and fresco artwork covering the walls. Inside, their were countless painted icons of Saints, the Virgin, and Christ that were placed for veneration. Having no idea the protocol involving praying to saints, I just bought and lit a few candles and then slowly milled around admiring the artwork. Of particular note (picture hopefully to come) was this massive golden and jewel-encrusted egg at the front. I have absolutely no idea what purpose it served, but it was a very intricate piece that was a good four or five feet high.

I spent around 30 minutes inside before heading back outside, where the petrol protesters were now making their way through the big square in front of the Cathedral. I walked around the flea market there and chatted with a guy selling religious icons; I knew I wanted to buy one for pure artwork, but I also knew I needed to do some research into saints and historical figures first.

Lastly, I took the hostel's suggestion and went to eat at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. I immediately appreciated the difference between Spain and Bulgaria in terms of pricing. For 15 euros (30 leva) I was able to get a three-course meal with pre-dinner brandy and a beer. The pre-dinner brandy, called rakka, is a super powerful brandy made from a variety of fruits. It wasn't for me. However, they had really good meat dishes and I ended up getting basically a pork chop that was stuffed with sheep cheese and chopped up bacon. Delicious.

I ended the night by going to a different part of the neighborhood to a bar called the Ale House, which the hostel recommended because they brew their own beer there. I was pretty tired and full at this point, so I didn't do anything exciting and went home to bed afterward.

Toledo Time Machine

After getting back to Madrid, I had a full day to burn before getting on my flight to Sofia on the 28th. After consulting some of my friends who have been to Spain before, I picked Toledo as a good day-trip from Madrid. Toledo was the capital of the Visigothic kingdom that ruled the Iberian peninsula after the fall of the Roman empire. Toledo was the heart of the Visigothic Empire until the Muslims invaded from North Africa in 711 and killed the Visigothic king, Roderic, in battle.

Side tangent: being back in Madrid and staying put for 36 hours gave me a much-needed opportunity to do laundry. In my first-ever experience of hand-washing clothes, I think I did pretty well using the sink and bathtub and some travel-sized Tide packets I brought along. It was super convenient that I had a five-bed hostel room to myself, as well, because I was able to take over the entire space and put wet clothes on hangers dangling from other bunks, the TV, the bathroom door, etc. Everything took forever to dry, but a success, I'd say.

Anyway, so on Thursday the 27th I took a noon train from Madrid to Toledo. It was on the high-speed rail and so we made a 180km distance in a solid 45 minutes, which was pretty nice. Knowing I didn't have a whole lot of time in Toledo (I'd scheduled a 7:25pm train back to Madrid) I headed straight into the city center to look at the Alcazar and the Cathedral.

Toledo was really pretty in the sense that it really hasn't expanded outside the historic center; there are no ugly, drab suburbs. Instead, once you cross the old bridge and climb a trillion steps, you can look outwards from the city walls and see rolling fields and orchards and farms. Of course, I understate the task of getting up said trillion steps. In coming up with a defend-able position, the Visigothic kings decided to build Toledo on top of a semi-mountain, so getting into the city and then moving around it is no easy task. I was constantly going up and down, up and down, so I got a pretty good workout in. First thing I went to the Alcazar, the former fortress-turned-military museum. Kind of like the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the Alcazar is built on top of a bunch of ruins; in this case, Roman/medieval/Islamic/Reconquista ruins. Every ruling party built additions to the original fortifications until after Ferdinand and Isabella, when a palace/fortress in more the Renaissance and then Baroque style was added. That building was almost completely obliterated during a 3-month siege during the Spanish civil war, and so they took the opportunity for the new building to really showcase the ruins beneath. The whole building is now on top of massive steel pillars that go into the ruins, so that while five stories worth of museum are above you, you can see across a massive open space with the towers and fortress remnants below you. I love museums that are built like this, so that even the building itself is a museum.

Turned out the Alcazar was a great choice for me to start the day, as they had a really great collection of military items threaded into the overall history of Spain. I spent an hour and a half in one room alone that went through the history of the reconquista from 732 to 1492. One of the cooler items on display was El Cid's sword. I then quickly snaked my way through the remaining four floors, since I didn't want to spend my entire time in Toledo in one place.

My second stop was the massive Toledo cathedral; as a town that was reconquered in 1085, Toledo's Catholic archdiocese took on great importance early on to the Spanish Church. Along with Burgos and Leon, Toledo's cathedral is supposed to be one of the three most important cathedrals in Spain. I went in with my audioguide and looked around for a bit; all the cathedrals are kind of running together in my mind at this point, but I enjoyed the Toledo one because of a) it's massive size and b) the shape. The main altar is at the front, surrounded by a circular ambulatory that's made to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christ was buried. It had really great natural light, and so the altar space was really pretty. Once again, I didn't spend too long here since I was only in Toledo for five or six hours.

Lastly, I walked through a neighborhood strewn with tourist souvenir shops and cheesy sword stores to get to the Sephardic Museum and Sinagoga del Transito. This one is another of the three pre-Inquisition synagogues that are still intact today, kind of like the Sinagoga I went to in Cordoba. This one was a bit bigger, but had a lot of the same Mudejar artwork and visual elements. The Sephardic Museum, unfortunately, wasn't translated into English so I just walked through it's few rooms without really knowing what I was looking at. I knew a fair amount about the Spain's Sephardic Jews and where they went after Ferdinand & Isabella kicked them out though; so I could at least put a little bit together.

After seeing those three sites, I walked back through town, got some ice cream, and walked back to the train station. Once back in Madrid, I got dinner and read my book with some wine back in Plaza Mayor.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Granada Pt. 2

Today I didn't have a whole lot on my agenda other than a 6pm train back to Madrid. In the morning, I hiked up the OTHER big hill in Granada, up to the old Moorish neighborhood, the Albacín. In medieval times, this was one of the liveliest sections of Granada, and it used to have a sizable fortress as well; during periods of internal strife an opponent to the ruler established in the Alhambra would usually set up camp in the Albacín. This was what happened during the 1480s and early 1490s; depending on how the war against the Spanish Christians was going, the most successful ruler, either Boabdil the Unfortunate (who ultimately turned Granada over to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492) or his uncle, El Zagal the Valiant, would be installed in the Alhambra and the lesser one would take quarters in the Albacín. More than once the gates of the Albacín opened for an army bound for the Alhambra. Having climbed both of those hills now, though, I have no idea how someone in full battle gear could make it up either in decent time at all.

Anyway, I climbed to to near top of the Albacín quarter for a postcard viewpoint of the Alhambra on the next hill. At the plaza outside the St. Nicolas church, I found that viewpoint and spent two hours just sitting there in the sun, legs dangling over a tall wall, soaking in the view of the Alhambra with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada behind.

I never wanted to leave that place, but I figured I ought to do more with my last day than just that. So I made my way down the hill (a lot easier in that direction) and went to the Capilla Real, or royal chapel. Though a small, simple space in the context of medieval churches, the Capilla Real is notwithstanding the burial place of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. They, along with their daughter - Juana the Mad - and her husband, each have marvelous marble sepulchres in front of the high altar. Descending below them into the crypt, however, you get a sense of the piety that Isabella - if not all the others as well - deeply felt. Although the first to die, Isabella chose the means of her and Ferdinand's burial; all four of the monarchs lie in simple wooden caskets and share a single room in the one-room crypt, decorated only by a crucifix above them. Also in the chapel was a magnificent painting of Boabdil handing the keys to Granada over to Ferdinand and Isabella on January 2, 1492. One day I'm going to get a canvas copy of this painting as well for my library room!

After that, I took a lengthy lunch break, had a feast, and then dozed off for a little while in a park waiting for the Cathedral to open. That was the last remaining thing I really wanted to see. It was a lot different than others, I've been to, but i really liked it. It was more baroque and Spanish renaissance than Gothic, having been started in the 1500s under Charles V. The main alter area was a circle, modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with an ambulatory aisle encircling it. The whole thing is whitewashed, as well; the columns and arches and vault bearing no color whatsoever. At first it thought it made the place look incomplete, but then I warmed to it's simplicity and how it seemed to bring more light into the space than cold, uninviting stone would. Another thing I enjoyed was the lack of a choir section, so that the whole massive space of the inside of the structure can really be sensed, in addition to giving exponentially more worshippers the hands at seeing the alter. Too many churches, especially Westminster Abbey, provide a miserably small space for actual services to be held; this one was wide and would've been a lovely place to go to Easter service, I lament in hindsight.

Now that I was done with all that, it was time to hop back on another train - returning to Madrid now!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Granada Pt. 1: Alhambra y Generalife

I woke up bright and early in my ghetto hostel room in order to tackle the Alhambra, the massive palace / fortress of the Nasrids, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain that wasn't overrun until 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella. My "appointment" at the Nasrid palaces was at 11:30, but I could pick up my ticket as early as 10 and I wanted to get as much of a head start as i could on the massive annoying tourist groups.

The walk from central Granada, where most everything is, to the top of the Alhambra is a CLIMB! Even though it was 9 in the morning and the sun was still covered in clouds, I was burning up walking up there. How any Christian besiegers would have attempted a direct assault on the Alhambra is beyond me. After getting to the top, catching my breath, and getting my ticket with an hour to spare, I toured the Alcazaba, the main fortress and military complex at the front of the Alhambra. The entire Alhambra complex, likened to a Moorish Versailles, is shaped kind of like a boat atop one of Granada's hills at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Alcazaba, therefore, would be the front of that boat. It had three massive towers, including the one at the front, El Torre de la Vela (tower of the sentry) that was fixed with a bell after the Christian conquest. In addition to being used to tell time for Granada's post-1492 medieval residents, it is still rung ceremoniously every January 2nd to commemorate the day that Boabdil, the last king and emir of Granada, handed the fortress - and his kingdom - over to Ferdinand and Isabella. I kept marveling at the little moments of history like this that I was witnessing today.

After getting through the impressive ramparts and fortifications of the Alcazaba, it was about time for my scheduled admission into the Nasrid Palaces. The Nasrid dynasty built the Alhambra in the 1300s and kept adding to it well into the 1400s. They moved the fortress all the way to the top of the hill from where the Zirid dynasty of the 1100s and 1200s had placed it farther down the cliff. In addition to moving the whole complex farther up to a more defendable position, the Nasrids built the most splendid and bountiful palace in the West. Like the Alcazar in Seville, but increased exponentially, the Alhambra palaces were ridiculously adorned with amazing Islamic art: stucco and wood molding and framing, elaborate glazed tiles, and thousands of different geometric patterns that dazzle the eye and leave you absolutely speechless. Compared to Versailles and other more modern examples of monarchal or ecclesiastical splendor, the Nasrid palaces put them all to shame. Only when I am able to upload pictures will I begin to be able to describe the incredible detail of the artwork there, because I certainly can't describe it with any justice.

After strolling super slow through the Nasrid palaces and taking about a million pictures, I wandered the gardens of the complex, called the Generalife. They too were wonderful examples of Islamic art expression, with water used everywhere to break the monotony of space, cast light into shadow, and overall serve to beautify the environment. I was also lucky to latch on to an American family from Boston during the palace tour that I was able to swap taking pictures with, so I got some good ones with me in them for once.

By this time, I'd spent over five hours actually exploring the Alhambra, not to mention the time spent climbing up there. I walked the the train station to get my ticket back to Madrid tomorrow night solidified, and then I found an outdoor cafe in Plaza Nueva to have a late lunch / early dinner and vetoed my feet for awhile. I spent 3 hours there reading, snacking, and writing notes, and then I wandered the banks of the Darro for awhile. I was looking for antique shops, but all I found was stupid souvenir shops and a major infestation of stray cats. It was neat, however, to look up at the imposing Albambra walls and towers hundreds of yards up the cliff. Also, nearer the river are the remains of the walls and turrets of the earlier Zirid fortress, which I enjoyed looking at.

After all this, I retired to another cafe, where I am now, nursing a glass of wine and hammering out blog posts. It's hard work typing on an iPod; my thumbs are going to be exhausted tomorrow. Hope someones actually reading all this!

The Caliphate of Córdoba: Madinat al-Zahra

Today I had only one thing on my mind: Madinat al-Zahra, the magnificent Moorish Versailles that lies in ruins 8 I'm outside Córdoba. In addition to the famous Mezquita-Catedral, this little gem of history was my reason for coming to Córdoba. It was built over a ten year period in the 930s and 940s by the Umayyed caliph Abd ar Rahmad III as the seat of his government and private residences, by an entire city also sprang up around the palaces. It was unfortunately sacked by Berber armies in 1011, and then subsequently dismantled by people in need of building supplies looked for the next several hundred yeas. Archaeologists starts excavations in 1912, and have so far only excavated around 12% of the palace complexes, which is just a fraction of the whole city.

It was a pain to get to, since you had to take a public bus (no taxis out there) for which you needed to buy a ticket ahead of time. Since Saturday was all sold out, I figured I'd stay an extra half day in Córdoba and go today; it was most definitely worth it. The site had a really incredible museum attached to it, with all sorts of interactive displays and 3D renderings of the complex, in addition to a bunch of household items recovered from the site. After seeing that I took a shuttle to the actual ruins. The complex was built up the hillside, leading to straccated levels of terrain corresponding to various social classes or functions. That being said, it all involved a fair amount of hiking. Some of the buildings had been partially reconstructed, so it reminded me a lot of Karnak Temple in Egypt, but it was easy to imagine how parts of the city would've looked in their glory days. Got a lot of good pictures here that hopefully I'll be able to upload soon.

After Madinat al-Zahra, I didn't really do anything until my train to Granada that evening. I just hung out over lunch, trying Cordoban meat balls, and then coming across another surprise procession and marching band coming out of the Mezquita for Easter Sunday. On to Granada and the Alhambra! Little did I know I was checking into one of the world's most ghetto hostels, with no lockers, doubtful hot water, and no milk in the morning when the breakfast offered is cereal and toast. Haha. This is what I get for being so cheap and booking whatever costs the least on HostelWorld.

The Caliphate of Córdoba: Day 2

This morning I got started by organizing tomorrow; since I figured out yesterday that I needed a special ticket to go to Madinat al-Zahra, the caliphal palace complex outside Córdoba, I went to the tourist information booth and reserved a Sunday ticket. I hope that spending Easter at a former Muslim palace doesn't make me a bad Christian.

After taking care of that little logistic detail, I set out to explore the Jewish quarter, La Juderia, in more detail. I walked the old city walls from the Almovorid and Almohad eras (1000s and 1100-1200s, respectively), including the fabulously well-preserved Almovorid gate that led out of the city. The walls were upkeeps of the old Roman walls that needed little modification during the time of Muslim rule.

I then toured the ruins of the caliphal baths outside the modern Alcazar (during Muslim rule their Alcazar was much bigger and the baths were enclosed within the fortress walls). It was all super interesting and a lot of the room's base structure was preserved really well. I wish that the spa culture was more prominent - and less expensive - in today's society. Apparently the caliphs and viziers used to hold business meetings in the warm and hot rooms; that'd certainly make investment banking more tolerable if the office was a spa! But once again, where your average tourist seems a bunch if random names and dates, I was walking through a history I am intimately acquainted with and was consistently in awe of what I was seeing in person; all sorts of things straight from the pages of history books I've read. Truly awesome.

After the baths, I went and saw La Sinagoga, the only pre-Inquisition synagogue left in Andalusia and only one of three in all of Spain. The Muslim included was obvious as the small building was a brilliant example of stucco molding and wall print, just with Hebrew lettering instead of Arabic. Having just re-read a book about the Inquisition and the expulsions of Spain's Jews and Moors, seeing a synagogue left standing was very powerful. It survived because it'd be converted into a hospital and was not demolished for symbolizing the presence of what Torquemada and the other leaders of the Inquisition viewed as the "Jewish superstition." Spain's Jews were offered exile or conversion exactly one month before Columbus's departure in 1492, and Sephardic Jews that chose to leave lost everything. Many went to Portugal, where they were expelled under even harsher terms years later. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews and Moors to rid the peninsula of heresies against the church, for everyone then viewed the jubilee year of 1500 as the coming of the second kingdom of Christ. Isabella was viewed as the woman of the apocalypse, and Ferdinand as the "bat," the prophecies leader who would free Spain, capture Jerusalem for Christianity, and defeat the Antichrist and his army. The discovery of the New World in 1492 and the defeat of Granada that same year did much to reinforce these apocryphal convictions.

Anyway, I digress heartily. I then toured Córdoba's archaeological museum, which had a great collection of medieval and Muslim pieces and was thoroughly better at Madrid's attempt at a history museum. After that, I broke for lunch in Plaza de la Corredera, Córdoba's version of Plaza Mayor and where, in addition to the running of the bulls, the inquisition auto-de-fe's (acts of faith) were held (mostly involving burning heretics at the stake).The weather got sour and cold over lunch, so I used that dreary opportunity to go get my ticket to Granada worked out at the train station.

The rest of the night I spent going to a horsemanship show at the Royal Stables and then a late-night Easter vigil. The horsemanship show was pretty cool, mostly because of just how beautiful the horses all were. Some of the numbers were just horse and rider prancing them around, while others were more exotic and involved a flamenco dancer dancing with a horse and commanding the horses's movements with her dance moves. That was pretty interesting. Then, the Easter vigil. We started in the courtyard of the Mezquita for a candlelight prayer and then all shuffled into the Mezquita in solemn procession. We then had several Bible readings with songs following (for which luckily they had an English translation) and then several liturgy sermons (for which I did not). Some of the songs involved Spanish guitar, which was really cool to hear applied to a church setting. After about 2 hours though, with no end in sight, I bailed since the liturgies had no English translation and I no longer had any idea of what was happening. I made it past midnight though, so I'm counting that as making it to church on Easter.

The Caliphate of Córdoba: Day 1

This morning, still overcast and rainy in Seville, I left early for Córdoba. My hostel this time was in the city center in La Juderia, the old Jewish neighborhood. Thinking places would have odd Holy Week hours like they did in Seville, I threw my stuff down and headed straight away to the Mezquita-Catedral and the Alcazar to see their hours for the week. I made the genius decision to go to the tourist information center for the first time in my life, since it was right across the street from the Mezquita, and got a handy print out of all the sites in town and their Santa Semana hours. The Mezquita looked packed with the late morning tourist rush, so I walked just down the street to the Alcazar.

The Alcazar is a 14th century creation of Alfonso XI. He built this Moorish-inspired fortress on the ruins and grounds of the former Almohad - and before the Caliphal - fortress / palace. In the 1480s, during the final stage of the Spanish reconquista, Ferdinand and Isabella, the "Catholic monarchs," set up shop in the Alcazar at times to pursue the conquest of the last Moorish kingdom in Spain, the emirate of Granada. Also in the Alcazar here in Córdoba, like that in Seville, the monarchs listened to the unrelenting Cristobal Colón and his seemigky crazy plan to sail due West from the Azores in search of Cipangu (Japan), India, and the Great Khan of Cathay (who knows?). The Alcazar itself, other than it's ramparts and towers, was pretty uninteresting and disappointing, other than some fabulous Roman mosaics preserved in the chapel there. There were no fantastically decorated rooms or courtyards like Pedro I's Alcazar in Seville. The part that I enjoyed the most wasn't even open to the public; a massive spread of ongoing archaeological digs in one of the courtyards. However, regardless of the Alcazar's fortress itself, the gardens were really beautiful, and featured a massive statue of Ferdinand and Isabella receiving Columbus. My string of good luck with otherwise uncooperative weather continued; the sun came out right in time for me to walk through the gardens.

After spending an hour or so at the Alcazar, I took advantage of the break in the rain to walk across the Roman Bridge over to the Tower of Calahorra, another remnant of the Moorish occupation of Córdoba for 500 years. As the weather turned nasty again, I walked back over the bridge and made for the Mezquita. The largest and principal mosque in Córdoba, enhanced and enlarged on four separate occasions by various rulers, the Mezquita was christened as a Christian cathedral in the years following the reconquest of Córdoba by Ferdinand III in 1236. 150ish years later, Carlos I would order a Gothic cathedral to be placed in the dead center of the mosque, which was famous for it's rows upon rows of double-tiered red- and white-striped arches. After the cathedral's completion, Carlos famously regretted his decision, saying "You have destroyed what was once unique in this world." Although the church IS beautiful in it's own right, it completely destroys the symmetry and simplistic grace of the old mosque. Where once one could see across 200 yards of the arched prayer space, there are now random chapels and Gothic vaulted hallways.

I spent around 2 hours taking in the beauty of the mosque and then went back to my hostel to get cleaned up and changed for a on evening service venerating Christ's death onthe cross. It was an interesting experience, having no real grip on Catholic traditions and worship and having absolutely no grip on Spanish, but I needed to go to church in some form on Good Friday! There was a lot of standing, and a bunch of people left early, but I was determined to take communion for the first time in awhile, so I stuck it out and made it the whole 2 hours.

For the rest of the night, I went to what Frommer's dubbed the best restaurant in Córdoba and one of the most famous in Spain, El Caballo Rojo (the red horse). I gottheir specialty, bull tail roast, with an Andalusian gazpacho and a sweet almond and orange salad. Needed a good meal after being on super tourist mode and eating once a day for the last four days; since everything in Seville was only open during lunchtime hours, I wasn't about to waste time eating! But I made up for it at Caballo Rojo, for sure.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Seville: Maundy Thursday


This morning I was in no rush to get out the door and moving, since I figured just about everywhere except the major tourist places (two of which I'd done yesterday) would be closed. From my hostel, I headed east to Casa de Pilatos, or Pilate's House. It's a 15th-century mansion built by the royal family of Tarifa, one of medieval Spain's royal fiefdoms, in the Moorish style. However, the most interesting part about the complex is that the original building was modeled after the dimensions of Pontius Pilate's home in Jerusalem. How those metrics are still known, I have no idea, but the original builder went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and came back with the idea to build it. It is located exactly as far from an important Spanish shrine outside Seville as Pontius Pilate's house was from Golgotha in Jerusalem. Thus, the builder then created a "stations of the cross" walk from his home to the Cross of Field shrine outside Seville's walls, and this became a popular religious walk for Seville's citizens.

I took a good hour and a half to walk through the house and gardens, because although not as impressive as the Alcazar (not a lot could be), the Casa de Pilatos was an incredible example of Mudejar art and architecture splashed with elements of Gothic and Renaissance influences as well. Like parts of the Alcazar, the building forms around a central patio or courtyard, with several stories of rooms enclosing it. The bottom floor walls were all covered in Moorish-style tiles, which the family had specially commissioned, since the Moors had been expelled from Seville in 1248 and Spain altogether in 1492. Above the tile walls were 24 original Roman busts of emperors and generals that made up the original Count of Tarifa's sculpture collection, along with some larger ones that occupied the four corners of the patio. I was most taken aback by all the arches, because just like the Alcazar they were all incredibly ornately decorated with stucco friezes around them. But I won't bore you all with any more art history details.

After Casa de Pilatos, I went down to the Plaza de Burgos and had lunch at a tapas place called Las Coloniales, that both my hostel and a friend who studied abroad here recommended. Right about then, it started to rain reasonably hard and so I just took a lengthy lunch break under an umbrella outside and ate and read my book for awhile. Since I'm never really sure what I'm getting when they don't have an English menu, I looked up a few things in my dictionary and then just guessed at what I thought was a salmon plank served with ham. However, it turned out that "plank" is also a big piece of toast; what I ended up getting was a massive piece of toast with a salmon spread (think the consistency of sweet potatoes) slathered on it and then a bunch of roasted ham pieces on top. It was really good though, so I didn't mind the surprise.

Then, taking a wild guess and what may or may not be open on Holy Week, I went back toward the Catedral and Alcazar in order to see if the Archivo General de los Indos was open, which is a museum similar to Madrid's Museo de America. Since Seville was one of the top ports of medieval Spain, and where Ferdinand & Isabella welcomed Columbus back from America, it has a lot of good maps and documents and other bits of history related to the Age of Exploration. wasn't open. It was only 2 o'clock on a Thursday, right?? Who am I to dare think that a museum might be open on 2 o'clock on a weekday??

After this, I figured my next potential stop - the Archaeological Museum - would also be closed, but I gave it a shot anyways. Along the way, I cut south to the River Guadalquivir to see the Torre de Oro. As the Alhomad regime was crumbling in the early 1200s, the amir Muhammed an-Nasir ordered that the remaining Muslim strongholds in Andalucia adequately fortify themselves. His son, the future amir Yusuf II, was in charge of Seville and built the 12-sided Torre de Oro (tower of gold). Originally, it was covered in gold tiles, but these were stripped away hundreds of years ago. The tower was one point that controlled a massive chain that stretched across the harbor and protected Seville's valuable harbor. During the siege of 1248, the Christian fleet rammed the chain and broke it, allowing for the city to fall more easily into Christian hands.

The small naval museum inside the Torre de Oro was closed, but Frommer's said it didn't really feature anything special, so I didn't really care. Instead, I headed south along the river on Paseo de las Delicias and into Maria Liusa Park to attempt to go to the Archaeological Museum. Inside the park, I went and briefly saw the Plaza de Espana, a massive crescent-shaped building built for the Spanish-American exposition in 1929 that brought together all of Spain's former colonies for a big cultural fiesta. On a prettier day, this place would be great to sit and read a book or something - people were renting rowboats and bicycles - but the on/off drizzle just made me want to push on. I got to the museum - surprise! it was closed - but took some good pictures of the Mudejar architecture on some of the pavillions there and at Plaza de Espana on my way out. At this point, I'd been walking since after lunch for a good 2 1/2 hours (the park looked deceivingly close on the map) and needed to get off my feet again. I headed back toward the Barrio de Santa Cruz east of the Cathedral, a neighborhood known for narrow medieval streets and an overall charming feel. I got coffee and read my book for a bit, but when I noticed that it was 5 o'clock and, rain or not, people were setting up chairs for more processions, I knew I had to high-tail it home or else get stuck in the crowds for another night. I wouldn't mind seeing the processions again, but I can do that from my hostel neighborhood (or anywhere else, for that matter) and didn't need to be at the Cathedral right in the middle of everyone. As I was walking home, I noticed that a lot of people were beginning to drift toward the Cathedral for a Maundy Thursday mass (the bells in the Giralda were going crazy). The men and boys were all wearing suits (they had been all day) with purple ties. A fair amount of the women, though not all of them, were wearing a black dress and veil that poofed up off the back of their head and then came down the front. Spain is definitely more religiously... ostentatious? than we are. It was very neat to see all the cultural disparities between their overwhelmingly Catholic society and that of France, where I spent last Easter.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Semana Santa in Seville

This morning I took an 8:30am train from Madrid's Atocha station to Seville Santa Justa. It was remarkably efficient; I got there extra early even though I knew where the station was and already had a ticket, but I got through security and was in the "terminal" five minutes after I arrived. The whole thing was just overall super easy. It took us 2 1/2 hours in total to get to Seville, which I thought was pretty excellent timing. No idea as to how fast we were going, but it seemed like we were making pretty good time.

I walked to my hostel from the train station in Seville, which was a little bit longer than I thought, but allowed me to see a little bit more of the city than I ordinarily would have. After get checked into the hostel (the plaza outside it pictured above), I made straight away for the Catedral. Since it was holy week, I knew that a billion Europeans with awesome vacation policies would be here like they were in Madrid. Furthermore, as I would soon discover, Seville more than anywhere else in Spain is renowned for Holy Week festivities. I walked along Calle Cuna to the Catedral plaza and, after snapping some pictures of the exterior, hopped in line. The structure is completely amazing; after conquering Seville from the Moors in 1248, the Christians under Ferndinand III destroyed the mosque occupying the site and, within a century or two, began work on the Gothic cathedral we see today. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third biggest church overall (after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London). An amazing attribute is the part of the mosque that still remains, the Moorish tower built under the Almohad amir Al Yu'qub in the 1190s. However, after his death in 1199, the tower was never completed, until the Christian church encompassed it into the cathedral and made it the bell tower. Now, it boasts the biggest bells in all of Spain. The exterior of the building is an equally unique mix of Gothic and Moorish influences, and overall, the building was not as symmetrical and predictable as the majority of Gothic cathedrals. Inside, other than how massive it was, it was pretty typical, though. Not to use that as a negative statement, though; the artwork, sculpture, and overall architecture was all stunning. Plus the space that it occupies is just something in itself. There were also some cool and unique things inside like the grave of Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colon, as they call him. I did the full audio tour of the Cathedral and then climbed the Giralda tower (not nearly as daunting as the belltower in Florence because this one had ramps instead of stairs) and got some great pictures of the rest of the Cathedral and the neighboring Alcazar from the air.

After the church, I walked right across the plaza to the Alcazar, or fortress. Pedro the Cruel built in the 1300s on top of an existing Moorish governor's complex. He built the massive spread (a 14th-century version of Versailles, I suppose) in the Moorish fashion, however, even though he was constantly battling them during the ongoing Reconquista. The whole place is just absolutely gorgeous; it's already a UNESCO World Heritage site, but I think it may be one of the most stunning and beautiful buildings in the world. The Moorish artwork, like the colorful floral and animal designs on wall tiles, arches, etc. is just a beautiful composition. There were subtle Christian influences (like the use of Bible scripture everywhere) but everything else was either Sevillan Moorish or Granadan Nasrid Moorish in style. I was just in awe of almost every room I went into, and the outdoors interior courtyards were simply breathtaking. My one frustration was that no one seemed to be able to take a decent picture of me. I was listening for French or Spanish speakers, or even Germans, that I could spew out a broken sentence asking for a photo. But all I was hearing were weird Slavic or Norse sounding languages! The people that I did hit up generally screwed it up, which was just infuriating. This Chinese girl that was using a $1000+ camera took two pictures of me that weren't even in focus!!! Are you kidding?? Then a French guy took a picture of me and just zoomed in on me and didn't include any of the incredible backdrop of the front of the Alcazar's palace. It just...rubbed my gears the wrong way the entire time. Traveling alone has its privileges, like being squeezed into somewhere when you didn't make a reservation, but having no one to take good pictures of you is a serious drawback. I'll have a lot of amazing photos of buildings, artwork, and scenery, but I'm not sure how many pictures that I like to call "Grandma-frameworthy" I'll come back with. Oh well.

By the time I got out of the Alcazar, it was already 5ish and not worth heading to the Casa Pilatos (another great Moorish art building), which closes at 6. Instead, I hung out near the Cathedral for what appeared to be a massive parade for Holy Wednesday. They were lining hundreds of wooden folden chairs up along the main avenue in front of the Cathedral and then in all the plazas the Cathedral opens out into. What I was in for, however, definitely exceeded all of this.

I had a few beers at a tapas bar near the Cathedral to stall time, and then headed down to the Cathedral itself to get a good place for the parade. Come 6 o'clock, literally thousands of clergymen and laypeople came out of the Cathedral in a slow, massive procession, all of them wearing the full robes and pointy hats that to us look like KKK attire. Except these guys were flinging incense, carrying flags, and their crosses weren't on fire. Each massive group of these priests would be accompanied by a full military band and a giant float for veneration. I'm not sure if there are relics of saints on these floats, or they're just used for allegories for veneration, but either way they were a huge deal. For instance, the first float that came out of the Cathedral was the scene of the flagellation. Two Roman soldiers were prostrating Jesus while also holding back the Marys and some of the disciples. The next float was a statue of the Virgin surrounded by hundreds of candles. The third one was Jesus on the Cross, surrounded by thousands of purple flowers. All the while in between them, thousands and thousands of people in the black, white, red, and brown robes and Klan-ish hats. All of their colors and insignia symbolized various orders, but I had no idea what they were, not being Catholic. The funny part was that, under these floats that were inching along, were like 20-30 men physically lifting it up off the road and carrying it. It was just like in the movie 300 where slaves propel Xerxes' platform. Every 30 meters or so, the float would be lowered, and a quick "changing of the guard" per se happened. All of these guys were wearing big padded turban-looking hats and then had weightlifting belts on. All of them seemed to be having a great time, so I guess its a pretty honorable thing to be a part of. However, all of these shifts made for pretty agonizingly slow progress. I felt kind of bad for the priests that were carrying replication crosses, even if constantly setting them down they couldn't have been comfortable.

After watching about 2 hours of this from the Cathedral, I decided to go back to my hostel for a shower and to put on warmer clothes before going out for tapas and a free flamenco club the hostel recommended. That is, that's what I thought I was going to do. Turns out that this parades of icon floats are not just done by the Cathedral. In fact, EVERY major church in town does them. The routes are constantly fluctuating, and over the course of the whole evening take up about every street in town. Seville, unlike Madrid, has very few main artery roads and the whole old town is just winding, unsensible alleys. Thus, if you put slow parades down these roads and not let pedestrians cross until the parade is complete, you have a major, major traffic problem. Attempting to walk the mile or so back to my hostel from the Cathedral turned out to be a 2 hour and 45 minute experience. Why? Because even though they started at 4 in the afternoon, these processions are STILL going on until 3 in the morning tonight. Since my hostel has a church for a neighbor, they clogged this neighborhood more than usual and I literally wasn't able to get home for that long. Every time that I went down a road, I would see the pointy hats and the crowd and knew I couldn't go that way; except I would turn around from whence I came, but I was no longer able to go that way either because a new parade would now be going on there. So literally, in what I before all this considered the most confusing city I've ever been to, I was just snaking in and out of unfamiliar roads with no idea what direction I was ultimately going in... all because the entire city apparently shuts down for Holy Week. I had no idea, whatsoever, what I was getting myself into. I just hope that, with tomorrow being Holy Thursday, that museums and places are still even open. Come to think of it, I have no idea if anything will even be open in Cordoba Friday and Saturday, and I don't even know if the trains will be running normally for me to go to Granada on Sunday! I have a Monday date with the Alhambra that I already have a ticket for, so I would certainly hope that I can get there without a problem.

So, overall, mixed feelings about my first day in Seville. I absolutely loved the Alcazar and thought the Cathedral was spectacular as well, but being on my feet for ten hours without a break - and being completely unable to get home when I wanted to - made for a very frustrating evening. The parades were certainly as culturally unique an experience as going to the bullfight, and it was certainly exciting and intriguing at the beginning. However, I am going to be hearing the trumpets and drums right outside the hostel doors for at least another two hours... but if this is a unique-to-Thursday deal I will be okay with it. If it occupies the whole of tomorrow too, however, I will want to get the hell out of Seville and on to Cordoba as soon as possible.