Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The rain in Spain falls mainly in Madrid

We have been extremely fortunate on this trip to have had reasonably good weather almost all of the time. The one exception has been Madrid where it has rained each day for a significant time. However, this has not prevented us from seeing the sights and particularly the galleries.

Now I know this must sound like heresy, but I am a bit over the old masters and far prefer to see contemporary artwork. As a consequence, we are not going to visit the Museo del Prado (quelle horreur!!) So on our first day here we visited the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which, among other things, houses Picasso's Guernica. This is a very poorly laid out and sign-posted gallery and, while there are some Picassos and Dalis, I was expecting more. Guernica was good although, given its iconic and idealised status in Spain, it is not easy to get to see as it is surrounded by many onlookers for most of the time. All in all we were both quite underwhelmed by this art gallery.

Day two saw us visiting the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This museum is made up of art works collected by two generations of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family which have subsequently been donated to Spain. It is a breathtaking collection which includes at least one painting (and often more) of almost every significant European painter and a number of American artists from the 20th century. At the same time they are running a blockbuster exhibition of the works of Marc Chagall. We both saw the Chagall exhibition and were very pleased we did. He has never loomed large on my art radar but seeing his paintings together has given me a real appreciation for his work.

Anyway, the T-BM was a highlight for us both.

We have been out and about in many of Spain's plazas, streets and malls now, and one dominant feature of all of them are the buskers. Many of these buskers, however, are the sort that wear elaborate costumes or makeup and generally stand stationary (apart from the occasional gesture and posing with individuals for a photo shoot - and a donation for the privilege). Some of these look impressive and others just look pathetic or bazarre.

I guess it's a living in a depressed economy.

We were going to take a day trip to Toledo on our last day in Madrid, but we have decided to return to Australia immediately as Judith's 92 year old father is ill and has been hospitalised.

We will have to save a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and a week in Paris for another trip. C'est la vie.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cordoba: more of the same? Not exactly.

We got to Cordoba by train, but on arrival were greeted by a shower of some very heavy rain. So it is quite plain that the rain in Spain did not fall mainly on the train! (I've been waiting for something like that...) We hurriedly got into a taxi and took the short trip to our hotel which is a five star Marriott - at last a bit of luxury!! The hotel is very swish, and our room on the fifth floor has a spa bath and a double shower, all the amenities you could want and a great view of parkland.

The biggest tourist attraction in Cordoba is a cathedral (what else) called the Mezquita (the Mosque). Now, Judith and I have seen a few Cathedrals by now, and to be honest we're starting to develop a rather large dose of cathedral-lag (it's a bit like jet-lag where you see too much of the inside of a Boeing 747).

However, I would have to admit to once again being surprised and impressed by yet another oversized religious building. It was originally a Visigoth church (AD 600), converted into a mosque (AD 785), expanded over the centuries by many moorish rulers to its current size, and then converted back into a Christian church in 1236 when Ferdinand III of Castille recaptured Cordoba. It has remained a Catholic cathedral since then with a few modifications every couple of centuries or so.

So, it looks very much like a massively huge mosque with a huge cathedral bunged into the middle of it - which it in fact is. However, it still looks spectacular and is different from any other cathedral we have seen. We certainly thought it was worth seeing.

After we saw over the cathedral, we had an ice cream and walked over the bridge to the other side of the river where we walked along the bank, getting back to our hotel via another bridge further downstream.

Today we have really just taken things easy, done some washing, bought some supplies at a supermarket, looked around the shopping centre nearby, and generally enjoyed the amenities of our hotel. We have needed to take a break from all this sightseeing and traveling.

Tomorrow we take the train to Madrid where we are scheduled to stay five nights.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Yes we are in Seville, and no I don't need a haircut!

We tried to get a train to Seville yesterday but the 11.24 am and the 2.00 pm trains were full so we had to take a bus (which was also full). We are paying top dollar (euro) for a fairly small hotel room so we wondered what was going on. It is the week of Seville's Feria de Abril or April Fair, which is possibly the largest annual Fair in Andalucia. A lot of women and their daughters are walking around in flamenco dresses and many Sevillians (those not in uniform) are out and about eating and drinking.

Today we walked into town and queued up to see the Seville Cathedral and its tower (the Giralda). The Giralda was once the minaret of the original mosque on this site until the Christians conquered the city and took over, changing the minaret into a steeple (as you do). The architects of this Cathedral said in 1402 "We're going to construct a church so large, future generations will think we were mad." They were right.

Now I know that these cathedrals are meant to be big, but this one is !!#&%+ huuuge! In fact we didn't think of it so much in terms of a "church", but rather more like a Medieval religious mall. It has 80 chapels if you need to shop around for your particular saint. And the treasures contained within - Judith thinks that Spain could solve its financial woes if it sold off just a fraction of them.

The remains of Christopher Columbus are claimed to be here in an elaborately carved catafalque (above). However, that is a matter of debate and DNA testing is being conducted to establish the truth. I'm not sure that the truth should stand in the way of a good story, so I'm sure that whatever the outcome, many people will continue to believe the status quo. Besides, it is an impressive allegorical sculpture so it must be true.

The second day in Seville we walked to the Espacio Metropol Parasol which is a large structure that the locals call "the mushroom" and which has caused a bit of a stir. You are meant to be able to take a lift up on top to see the city but it all seemed to be closed. Took some good photos though. We then went to the Real Alcazar de Sevilla (the royal palace of Seville) which, again, is lavish, enormous, impressive and showing the moorish heritage of southern Spain (took some more good photos).

We watched TV for the first time since we left Australia on the first night in Seville. We tuned in to the BBC 24 hour world news service. It had a special segment on how unemployment in Spain is currently at 25% and in fact unemployment among the under 25's is at 50%! We can see the evidence of Spain's economic woes right here in Seville in the number of apartments for sale and to let.

Incidentally, the BBC program had a panel discussing Rupert Murdoch's appearance before the Leveson inquiry. It was brilliant! (not his appearance - the panel discussion).

Our next stop is Cordoba, and we are looking forward to it, but we are thinking that three cities in quick succession in Andalusia with its moorish heritage might be a bit of overkill. We'll let you know...


Saturday, April 28, 2012


We flew from Barcelona to Granada (one hour and ten minute flight) and settled into our hotel in the old part of town. It was quite a small hotel with quite a small room but it had a heated towel rack which made it easy to wash and dry clothes. The owner/manager was very nice, but he was a strange mixture of Basil Fawlty and Manuel - but without Basil's nastiness. I'm not sure if he was from Barcelona or not.

Anyway, we found Granada to be a lovely city; very geared up for tourists but that comes with the territory. We saw over the cathedral, next to which Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand's burial chapel is. It is a very impressive cathedral. Those Roman Catholics know how to do gilt!! (I think I've spelled that right).

The Alhambra fortress and associated palaces is the thing to see here. We hadn't booked two months ahead so the best way to get in (besides queuing at 7.00 am in the morning) was to take a guided tour. This we did the following morning and were very glad we did.

The Alhambra is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (we're notching them up). In this case it is so because, constructed in the mid 14th century by the Berber rulers of the emirate of Granada, it is the best preserved moorish ruins in the world. As well as that, it includes extremely well-preserved 16th century and later christian buildings.

Again, it is impressive for its size alone, but also for the amount of building that has survived and the advanced technologies underpinning it - such as its intricate series of water channels that supply the whole city (2000 people at its height). The Spanish government is restoring significant parts but this will take a great deal of time and even more money - not sure how much spare they've got at the moment.

That evening we did the obligatory gypsy flamenco thing in a "cave" but we would have to say that we were a bit underwhelmed. Maybe we saw the real thing or not, but as a piece of theatre I think they might have been going through the motions.

Oh yes, the photo below is another WTF!!? moment. We saw these boomerangs in one of the trashy market stalls that line the laneways behind the main streets. Spanish boomerangs!! Who would have thought? And coincidentally Spain's indigenous people use the same painting techniques and motifs as ours!


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Four days in Barcelona

Hi everyone - Judith here this time.

We had four leisurely days in Barcelona. Our hotel was in a great spot quite close to La Rambla which is Barcelona's well known thoroughfare.

Highlights for Milton were Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia cathedral (commenced in 1882 and still not completed), a visit to the Joan Miro Museun, and a tour of a once private residence designed by Gaudi .

I was singularly underwhelmed by La Sagrada Familia especially the most photograped front Nativity entrance.
Barcelona the city, like the people who live there, seems to be an elegant and stylish place. I spent some time looking at the shops getting a preview of next summer's fashions.

I also went on a historic walking tour and discovered that, like many European cities, Barcelona's history is studded with wars and invasions from the Ottoman empire to the Spanish Civil War.

St George, of the dragon fame, is the patron saint of Catalonia and Monday 23rd April is St George's Day. It is Barcelona's equivalent of Valentines Day. Women are given red roses and men are given a book so it is a great day for booksellers and florists. The streets were crammed with people and temporary stalls selling flowers and books. We noticed quite a few of the flower sellers were charitable groups so obviously a big fund raiser day too.

We also visited Sephora, the cosmetic store, as the Barcelona store is the biggest in Europe. If a perfume or cosmetic exists in the world they probably stock it.

Next stop ....... Granada.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

One day up in the air - the next one down in the ground!

Today we took a day tour around Cappodocia. There were only ten of us (four Argentinians, two Koreans, a couple from India and us) and our tour guide and a driver. We drove quite a few kilometres and didn't finish until about 6 pm, so we had enough time to get to know each other. We all got on very well and this made the day a special one for us.

Our first stop was a large canyon that a river had carved into the soft local stone. This canyon is the Ihlara Valley and we walked the 360 steps down into the valley and then walked along the river for three or four kilometers. It was an excellent walk with great scenery and a good view of the many caves carved into the steep cliffs.

Next stop was the Selime monastory carved into a hillside. We had to walk up a very steep and awkward hillside for about 120 metres and this really tested our fitness. It was a very impressive set of cave ruins with an equally impressive view over the surrounding flats.

We then went on to the underground city of Derinkuyu. This is the largest and deepest of the underground cities discovered so far and we walked down to the fifth level, 55 metres underground. We saw where they pressed grapes for wine, where they prepared bodies for burial, a chapel, a large common area which it is thought they used for religious education, and where they stabled their livestock. The grey hole below is the ventilation shaft looking down from the fifth level!

The history of these cities is complex, but they were carved out over thousands of years, each successive settlement of peoples carving, modifying and enlarging for their own purposes. In the early centuries after the death of Christ, Christians settled here and used the underground tunnels and caves for refuge from raiding tribes.

After Derinkuyu we returned to Goreme (where we are staying) via a jewellery emporium specializing in onyx and a store specialising in Turkish delight, nuts and dried fruit.

After all that climbing and walking Judith and I were, in the vernacular, knackered so we packed our cases and had an early night. Tomorrow we fly to Barcelona via Istanbul.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Up up and away, in my beautiful, my beautiful ...

Well, today was the day of the balloon flight. We got up before dawn and were picked up from our hotel and taken to a local restaurant for breakfast (along with about 200 other tourists). Now, I say "breakfast", but actually that's the term given it by the tour company. I had a cup of instant coffee and two chocolate wafery things - they seemed the most innoffensive objects on the table.

Anyway, after a half an hour we were all bundled off in buses to the various launching sites on the edge of town. Judith estimated that over 100 balloons went up that morning - each of them with a basket carrying 24 people paying 150 euro each ($175 AUD). That's an approximate value of $AUD 420,000 floating through the air - and this is the low season!!

Anyway (moving right along), the balloon flight went off without a hitch and Judith and I had a great time. It was our first balloon flight and the views were spectacular. The landscape itself was fascinating to see, but then add to that the spectacle of over 100 hot air balloons up at the same time and you get a breathtaking spectacle. It is one thing to see the erosion up close and personal, but the ballon flight enables one to see the big picture and the grand scale of the landscpape.

Yes, it was expensive and they obviously overcharge, but it was indeed fantastic and we have no regrets. Oh yes, there was one regret: the views were so great I took millions of photos and then had to cull masses of them.

The tour company dropped us back to our hotel room where we had a couple of hours of sleep to compensate for the early morning rising. In the afternoon we both had a Turkish bath which was a nice bit of pampering mixed with a bit of a sudsy massage. Judith and I compared notes afterward and it sounds as if I got the better deal as I had the same guy leading me and washing me through the whole process. Judith enjoyed hers but thought the experience might be enhanced by doing it with a small group of friends.

In the evening we went to a Turkish night of food, music and entertainment which was at a specially designed venue about 15 km away from our hotel. We were not sure what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised. The food was OK, the wine was Turkish (!??) but the dancing (traditional Turkish from various regions) was very professional and well done. The belly dancer was excellent and represented the highlight of the evening.

We were whisked back to our hotel by 11.20 and so ended our day as fully-fledged package tourists.

Tomorrow we are going on a day tour of Cappodocia which will include one of the underground cities. We are both looking forward to it, especially as we don't have to get up at the crack of dawn.