Friday, 6 March 2015

Country Review: Spain

Dates there: 29th April to 15th May 2014, 3rd to 5th July 2014: 20 days

Spain's Wonders: Sagrada Familia, The Alhambra, City of Arts and Sciences

Also visited: Granada Cathedral, the Mezquita of Cordoba, Metropol Parasol, Seville Cathedral, the Alcazar in Seville, La Pedrera.

On the Longlist: Burgos Cathedral, Guggenheim Museum, Nou Camp, El Escorial, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, the Roman Theatre in Merida, Aqueduct of Segovia, Palma Cathedral.

Before last year, I'd only visited Spain once, on a short holiday to Barcelona with Danielle in 2011. To be honest, it had never really appealed. Spain brought with it images of beaches and Ibiza and holidaying Brits and Costa del Bawbags and too much sun. Sure, I knew there was a lot more to the country but the cultural side had never really jumped out at me. If I wanted medieval towns or great art or food or drink, there was Italy or France. Spain seemed like a bargain basement version of these. Well, I was totally, utterly, completely wrong. Spain is brilliant. I want to go back. I want to have lots of money and travel Spain for months and months, visiting all the charming little towns, eating all the tapas, and visiting its huge amount of wonderful buildings, monuments, and landmarks. As long I can avoid the beaches.

So let's begin our tour of Spain and its Wonders, which I should stress is not remotely in any kind of geographical sequence. I know that nobody exactly visits these pages for practical travel advice, but if you fancy visiting some or all of the following, I'd definitely recommend getting yourselves a map of Spain and figuring it out for yourselves.

Barcelona first .Our visit there last year was pretty fleeting - just three days - but as I say, we'd visited for longer some years earlier. Barcelona is fantastic, a premier league world city, for all sorts of reasons. One is architecture, and for that Barcelona owes a debt of thanks to one of its own, a man called Antoni Gaudi. He, most famously, designed this:

That's the Sagrada Familia of course, at the time of writing riding 15th out of 66 on my leaderboard. Perhaps, when it's eventually finished, in a couple of decades, it might nudge itself even higher. The Nativity Facade, pictured above, is all Gaudi. The rest of it is by other architects working to his surviving plans. I think it's safe to say that the Sagrada Familia is one of the world's true one-offs.

Gaudi has plenty of other stuff enhancing the streets of Barcelona - Park Guell and Casa Batllo are two very notable ones - but sneaking onto my Longlist, I think Casa Milo is the most impressive. It's commonly known by the nickname La Pedrera, or "The Quarry", because of it's rock-face appearance.What I like about La Pedrera, apart from the fact that it just looks cool as hell, is that it's simply another building on the street. With a bit of imagination (and money, I grant you), more buildings could look like this.

Moving away from Gaudi, there's Barcelona's football stadium, the Nou Camp. I've not actually visited this (Danielle has) but think it's worth adding just because its so iconic, the largest stadium in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It has a capacity of 99,354 - you'd think they could find space for another 646 to make a nice round 100,000, wouldn't you? So it's big, and famous, but otherwise I'd be surprised if it blew my socks off. Stadiums just don't impress me very much.

Moving on then, let's take a peek at Granada. Its clear headline attraction is the Alhambra, a very respectable 26th on my list currently. It's an old Moorish fortress and has some absolutely gorgeous Moorish touches inside. From the outside, draped across a hillside, it looks spectacular. 

My brother and his wife joined us for Granada, and we were all very taken with the city itself. To the point that even if the Alhambra didn't exist, I would still regard Granada as a must-see destination. The heart of it is a centuries-old network of small roads and lanes far too small for cars, criss-crossing and running up and down hillsides. Cities are so delightful when you take away cars. Nestled within the network - literally squeezed between buildings - is Granada's Cathedral, a delightful 16th Century Spanish Renaissance creation.

The Moorish influence of Granada can be seen very clearly in nearby Cordoba too, and no more clearly than the Mezquita, or the old mosque-cathedral. What a special building this is - really, it should have been on my shortlist. It's a wonderful cross between a mosque and a church, with its history pinned heart-on-sleeve as you wander around, seeing the tweaks and changes that have been done over the years. Here's a picture from the outside.

Yeah, no big deal. But it's the inside that rightly makes it famous. Hundreds and hundreds of colourful arches, making a special atmosphere.

Seville too has plenty of Moorish influence. Moors eh, you just couldn't stop them back in the day. Below is Seville Cathedral, which I suppose is kind of testament to the fact that the Spanish Catholics did beat them eventually. The cathedral, built through the 15th Century, was the biggest in the world when it was finished, nudging the Hagia Sophia down to second place after a thousand years at number one. Although, as it happens, in the 15th Century the Ottoman Empire stormed into Constantinople anyway, renamed it Istanbul, and turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, so Seville Cathedral went to all that effort for nothing. Well, not nothing - it's still the largest cathedral (in a technical sense) in the world today. Funnily enough, it seems like 15th Century Christianity and Islam did a swap deal - Islam got  the Hagia Sophia and Christianity got the massive bell tower of their cathedral. It used to be a minaret under the Moors. And a whopper of a minaret too - 104 metres high. Well, the first 66 metres of it - the top part is all Spanish Renaissance.

The Moors also left behind a royal palace, or Alcazar. It's pretty nice, with lots of ornate Islamic flourishes and a large gardens.

But Seville also has something special that has nothing to do with the Moors, or the Catholics, or with anybody trying to worship a higher being. In a formerly run-down city square, it's got the bizarre Metropol Parasol, a gargantuan wooden lattice structure rising from the streets like a series of mushrooms that have merged together. It's wonderful, and one of the best "unofficial" structures I saw on my travels. It was only finished in 2011 and is completely unique as far as I know. You can climb to the top, have a beer, and wander around, or just admire it from the ground. It isn't garish and doesn't clash with the more classical surroundings, and is one of the best modern structures I've ever seen. I have only the highest praise for the Metropol Parasol.

I have less praise for Valencia's modern showpiece, the City of Arts and Sciences. All hi-tech gloss and shiny curves, it cost a fortune (billions) and has about as much feeling or atmosphere as an airport terminal. All surface, no substance, it looks terrific in photos but in person seems empty. It's only a decade old and already the signs of age are creeping in. I dare not think how this will look in a century.

All of the above I have visited, but as we continue my imaginary tour of Spain's highlights, we're now venturing onto places I haven't yet visited. I don't imagine any of the following troubling the top of my list, but they all look pretty splendid nonetheless.

We begin with Burgos Cathedral. I suppose the cynic could just shrug and say just another massive Gothic cathedral. Because that's just what it is. But what a world we live in when we can just take the below for granted.

Then we've got the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Frank Gehry's signature piece. In typical Gehry style, it looks like someone shredded a giant aluminium dustbin and turned it into a building. This isn't a criticism, I think it looks great and unlike anything else (except other Frank Gehry buildings). The Guggenheim was right on line for making my shortlist, and could still get there if somebody ever prods me.

Next up is El Escorial, or the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial to give it its fuller title. It's near Madrid and is a palatial complex featuring a monastery, a royal palace, a museum, and a school and was built in the 16th Century.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is one of these cathedrals that comprises a gargantuan series of additions spanning aeons. It began in 1075 and was still having stuff added in the 19th Century. The Baroque facade below is 18th Century, and looks very much like loads of churches and cathedrals we saw in South America. The cathedral's main claim to fame is that one of Jesus's Twelve Disciples - St James (Santiago in Spanish) - is buried here, and as a result it's become the destination of the Spanish pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago.

Here's another church for the list - this one goes by the slightly weird name of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, and it can be found in Zaragoza. Our Lady of the Pillar is just another name for the good old Virgin Mary - it's what the locals call her because about 2000 years ago, when St James was in the area trying to convert people, she appeared on top of a pillar surrounded by angels. The (allegedly original) pillar can still be found inside the church, although the church we see now is Baroque and built between the 17th and 19th Centuries, on top of a whole bunch of older ones, stretching way back (again, alledgedly) to the 1st Century AD.

Although St James was martyred in Judea (which is kind of the Palestinian West Bank today), he spent the years before that travelling through what is now modern day Spain. If that's true, maybe he visited Merida (then Emerita Augusta), a newly-built Roman city. It was built in 25 BC and the theatre below in about 15 BC. I've visited some pretty splendid Roman ruins in Turkey, and Italy itself, and so can't imagine these Spanish ones are anything better, but like Gothic cathedrals what a world we live in when we can shrug our shoulders at such things.

Near Madrid is the small city of Segovia, and it has all kinds of gems, primary among them its Roman aqueduct. Doesn't it look splendid? Usually, the Pont du Gard in France gets more plaudits, but there's something pretty amazing about a 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct running through a city. Perhaps more than anywhere else in Spain, I'd like to visit this.

And finally, another cathedral, this time in Palma. Aha, but this one's a little different because it looks a little like a fortress, or like a chunkier version of Milan Cathedral. Built from 1229 to 1601, it's another Spanish cathedral built on what used to be a Moorish mosque. Just to neatly tie in some other stands of Spanish history, Gaudi worked on it for a while in the early 20th Century, during a restoration, but Gaudi was a cranky old sod and got fed up after arguing with the people in charge and left in 1914.

And that's our Wonder tour of Spain over.


  1. Did you see the concert hall in LA? Very much the same genre as the Guggenheim, I ilked it.

    1. I certainly did. It's the best thing in the city. I wrote a little about it here:

  2. So you did, I couldn't recall. We basically have exactly the same opinions on LA, it seems. The soullessness of it was compounded by me going to the extraordinary San Francisco about a week later.

    We did have some really terrific Mexican food for lunch in central LA, though.

    1. We got two cheeseburgers for 99c.

  3. Sounds good to me!

    I got some nice pictures of the WDCH. Here's one:

    1. Link doesn't appear to work. Can you repost it?

  4. Oops, that's funny. Should have been There are others in that album too.


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