Recuerdos de la Alhambra

La Alhambra is the famous Moorish palace that overlooks Granada in southern Spain. Though originally built in the 9th century AD as a small fortress, the structure we see today was designed by the Moorish Sultan Abdallah ibn al-Ahmar in the year 1238. It is an architectural masterpiece and often referred to here in Spain as una joya (a jewel). It’s said that the Sultan was so soothed by the sound of falling water that he filled his palace with fountains, pools and canals. However, this extensive irrigation system served a practical purpose and made la Alhambra a true palace city separate from Granada in the valley below. It fell into Christian hands at the end of the Reconquista in 1492.

La Alhambra has served as the muse for many works of art. It’s inspired authors from Washington Irving (author of Sleepy Hollow) to the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca to modern bestseller Salman Rushdie. Many songs as well, from rock music with Terrapin Station by the Grateful Dead to classical music with the famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the piece that first introduced me to this breathtaking place. Really, the photos can’t do it justice.

Part of the Alhambra from one of its towers.

One of many fountains that adorn the palace

The very famous corte de los leones, complete with bride and groom on the left
View of the courtyard
A detail of the artistry in the plaster on the walls
And of the “stalactite” ceilings
The reflecting pool in the Patio de los Arrayanes
The ceiling in the Hall of the Ambassadors, an imitation of the night sky
A lush interior courtyard, one of a half-dozen or more.

Intricate stained glass ceiling with more of the “stalactite” or “honeycomb” architecture
“Washington Irving wrote in these rooms his ‘Cuentos de la Alhambra’ in the year 1829.”

General Life (not pronounced like it is in English), the former royal gardens just outside of the Alhambra.

Look familiar?

My friends and I

A panoramic view of Granada from the walls of the Alhambra.

And lastly, a YouTube clip of Julian Bream playing Recuerdos de la Alhambra. It’s pretty much the Stairway to Heaven for classical guitar, in terms of popularity. The guitar tremolo in this song is meant to imitate the trickling of the fountains. Plus, the video has a lot of wonderful shots of the palace:

Andalucía

Another two weeks and another couple of beautiful places to visit here in Spain. I haven’t done as much traveling as I would’ve liked, but this past weekend I was able to check a couple of places off my bucket-list. Early in the semester, I booked a trip to Andalucía through a local trip organizer known as Citylife Madrid. Andalucía is the southernmost comunidad autonoma (the equivalent of a state) in Spain, as well as the region that has the most Islamic influence. The comunidad was under Moorish rule for seven centuries. Oftentimes when we picture Spain with its warm pueblos blancos, old architecture, bullfights and flamenco guitars, we’re really picturing Andalucía. In three days, I travelled with fifty others on a bus to Córdoba, Sevilla and Granada. Here’s what I saw on this dizzyingly quick trip.

Córdoba

Córdoba is one of the oldest cities in Spain. Inhabited since before the Carthaginians arrived in the second century BC, the ancient city is now famous for its masterful mezquita (mosque). First constructed in the 700s, this mosque was expanded on four separate occasions before being conquered by the Christians and converted into a cathedral.

The old arch of Córdoba
One of the old minarets of the mezquita converted into a church bell tower
The main entrance into the Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba
A crucifix under a characteristically Moorish arch
The mihrab that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.
El bosque de columnas

Sevilla

Sevilla is the capital and largest city of Andalucía. With around 700,000 inhabitants, it has long been one of the most important cities in southern Spain. There are many fascinating and beautiful sites to see in this sunny, bustling place. There’s the Alcazar, a famous royal palace that mixes Moorish and Renaissance styles, the Cathedral of Sevilla, which, like Córdoba also used to be a mosque, and Plaza de España where a very short Star Wars scene was shot. Or you can simply walk up to one of many street corners and witness some truly amazing music or performance art.

The enormous Plaza de España.

Plaza de España, an imitation of the forest of columns in Córdoba.
La Giralda, an old minaret converted into a bell tower at the Cathedral of Sevilla
A view of the city from the Giralda 
A view of the top of the cathedral 
And also inside the cathedral, the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who is a big deal here in Spain

Granada

Granada is an absolutely charming and stunning city. As the last Moorish kingdom to hold out against the Reconquista, it bears the greatest mix of Christian and Islamic influences. Los gitanos (romanis) are a third group that for centuries have shaped the culture here. For twenty-five extra euros, Citylife provided us with a flamenco show in the gitano neighborhood of Sacromonte. The singing and dancing and guitar playing were literally held in a cave decked out with a tiled floor, paintings on the walls, and pots and pans hung from the ceiling. It’s impossible to capture the essence or spirit of some events. The flamenco show was like an intimate opera: a singer, a  guitar, a drummer and, of course, the dancers. This photo and video do not do it justice. 

The cave where the flamenco show was held

And a sample of what the show looked like:

I wish I had more photos of Granda, but almost all of them are of the unforgettable Alhambra (the famous Moorish fortress-palace that overlooks the city). And sorry, dear reader, but you will have to wait for the next blog to hear about that.

Guggenheim en el País Vasco

On the second day of the trip to the north, the Tufts-Skidmore program took us to Bilbao deep in the País Vasco (Basque country). The Basque are a group of people who have inhabited the border between northern Spain and France since before the Romans conquered the area about two millennia ago. They speak a language that is not related to any other Indo-European language. In fact, nobody knows the exact origin of it. The Basque people live mostly in España Verde, the northern strip of the country that is much lusher and receives much more rainfall (it rained the entire time we were there). Nevertheless, the other students and I had a great time. The highlight of Bilbao was, surprisingly enough, the Guggenheim Museum there. Little did I know before this trip that the famous Guggenheim in Manhattan has about a dozen other locations scattered across the globe; one just so happens to be in Bilbao! The museum, itself, is truly a work of art, said to be in the shape of a steamboat or ship (in honor of Bilbao’s industrial past).

The famous flower dog that stands guard at the entrance to the Guggenheim
Actual entrance to the museum

One of the most impressive exhibits was big enough to take up a whole football field. Visitors entered a large spacious room where there were undulating walls about ten to fifteen feet high. Some of these walls made swirly patterns like shells while others looked more like gently ebbing waves. Painted in brown and gray earth tones, all were meant to be explored and touched.

While we were at the Guggenheim there was also a Bill Viola exhibition there. Bill Viola is a contemporary, American video artist whose work is quite breathtaking. Viola likes to work with falling liquids or dialogue-less encounters between people, usually in very slow motion. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos or videos, but I’ve shared this YouTube link of one of the works exhibited at the Guggenheim:

However, I was allowed to take photos of another very large and impressive light display. This is a permanent installation at the Guggenheim in Bilbao by American artist Jenny Holzer. The pillars of light spell out words and short phrases in different languages.

Bilbao is a unique city not just for its culture and language but for its history as well. This city has a long industrial past (iron ore), and it’s only in the last 15-20 years that it has been revitalized as a tourist’s destination, in large part thanks to collaborations with the Guggenheim Foundation. But there are still vestiges of Bilbao’s factory-driven past. I managed to snap this last photo in the middle of the street on my way to the bus to leave Bilbao. I think it perfectly encapsulates the city as a place in flux, the religious and the industrial side-by-side, both clashing with the sleek, new skyscraper in the background. This is the story of the modern world (not to say anything of modern art), all on one street corner in Bilbao.

Vino, uno de los secretos de España

When we hear Spain, we usually think of bullfights, crowded fútbol stadiums, and fiery flamenco music. A pleasant surprise, however, has been the wine. Spanish wine is not only very diverse (almost every region produces its own wines), it’s also very tasty! This past weekend the Tufts-Skidmore program provided us with a trip to one of Spain’s most renowned wine regions: La Rioja. We passed a day in the capital Logroño, a small city surrounded by wine orchards all the colors of a New England autumn. The trip included a free tour of Bodega Carlos Moro, where we got to try not only some local Spanish wines but also the fresh grapes they use to make them. I will never forget walking between the rows of vines and sampling the different grapes while the sun set (sounds like something out of Eat, Pray, Love, but it’s true). It was fascinating to note how many different flavors the grapes could produce.

After this, our tour guide showed us some of the inner workings of the winery, including stainless steel vats for water and wine as well as a tunnel dug deep into the hillside where there were barrels upon barrels of fresh wine.

La bodega Carlos Moro

Underground vault where they keep the good stuff

At the end of the tour came, of course, a cata de vinos where we got to sample three of the bodega’s wines as well as receive a brief lesson on wine tasting etiquette. It was honestly some of the smoothest wine I’ve ever had, not that I know much about it (at least the lesson helped some). And it was all capped off with a feast of tapas, everything from the very Spanish potato and egg tortilla to the very American plate of Doritos (the winery knew their customer well).

Though it may not have anything to do with wine, it’s also worth noting that Logroño is one of the main cities along the Camino de Santiago, one of the most famous pilgrimage routes in Europe. Pilgrims along this route walk from the Pyrenees Mountains in the east (along the French-Spanish border) practically all the way to the Atlantic at the city of Santiago de Compostela. People have been taking this pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. But who knows, maybe it was then (as it is now) just an excuse to take a long stroll through Spanish wine country.

Part of the Camino de Santiago in downtown Logroño
Graffiti of the stamps that pilgrims receive as they pass through cities along the way

Halloween en Madrid

One of the biggest surprises about Spain so far is what a big deal Halloween is! It’s so celebrated here that the following day is a national holiday, Día de los Santos; schools and most businesses are closed. Of course, Día de los Santos, a day where people pay respect to the saints, has been celebrated in Spain for hundreds of years. It just so happens that Halloween comes the day before, so of course the Spanish take advantage of this situation to really live it up before the fiesta nacional (this might be one of the reasons Halloween has become so popular here).

Apparently, just ten to fifteen years ago Halloween hardly existed in Spain. No one carved calabazas de Halloween (Jack-o-lanterns), dressed up in costumes, or took their children trick-or-treating. Now, however, there are so many Halloween-themed events and parades happening around Madrid, the biggest problem is not choosing a costume but rather choosing which parade or party to go to. In Madrid alone, for example, there was the Noche de Mexicana Muerta, a parade in the style of Mexico’s famous Día de Muertos (Día de los Santos is similar but without the skeletal costumes and sugar skulls). In the famous Matadero, there was a haunted house with a vampire motif called Ruta vampírica a la luz de la luna llena (literally, Vampiric route by the light of the full moon. The weekend before Halloween, I even went to a Halloween-themed cata de vinos (wine tasting) called Hallowine. This wine tasting came not just with delicious tapas but also with tarot cards, spooky stories and even ghoulish red velvet cupcakes with shards of bloody sugar glass jutting out of them.

The vampiric haunted house in the Matadero

However, Madrid was not the only location for gory revelry on Halloween night. In Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes, there was Marcha Zombie. Going on its seventh year, this one-night-only event is a must for all zombie lovers. Held in the Plaza de Cervantes, participants put on their best fake blood and make-up and march through the ancient streets of Alcalá. La Marcha Zombie includes a free concert with an orchestra decked out in torn costumes and gruesome make-up, all beneath the red-lit statue of Cervantes himself.

Marcha Zombie 2017
Cervantes with the band in Alcalá de Henares.

With all of these choices on one night, where, dear reader, do you think I ended up? Truthfully, sometimes instead of the crowded parades and raucous festivals, you just want to get a few beers with your friends and unwind. This is how I ended up with the Mystery Gang at an over-crowded bar in downtown Madrid. It was a (relatively) quiet night, but it was the best decision I could’ve made.

Me, sans costume, with my friends dressed up as the Mystery Gang.

La Luna de Octubre

You don’t always have enough money to go on a vacation every weekend here in Spain. But sometimes it’s good to stay in Madrid because you see something truly beautiful and impressive. Since I had nowhere to go, my local friend Ben recommended Luna de Octubre (October Moon). This free festival of light was just such an event. For one night only, Madrid shuts down a huge stretch of the Paseo del Prado (one of the busiest boulevards in the city) and fills the streets with elaborate lightshows, illuminated sculptures, digital projections and live music. Basically, the boulevard becomes one big party, and it lasts until 3 in the morning. Since I’ve been in Madrid, one of the most salient features of Spanish culture is how nocturnal it is. Children stay out with their parents till midnight (or later); elderly couples stroll the streets at 2 am. Luna de Octubre is an embodiment of this celebration of the nocturnal, of what we so aptly call the nighttime.

Giant, glowing flowers illuminating the sidewalks of Paseo del Prado.
A changing face digitally projected onto a sculpture near the ayuntamiento (city hall) of Madrid.
Fuente de Neptuno (Neptune’s Fountain), filled with brightly lit plastic bottles, a statement on pollution in the city.
Geometric patterns projected onto the trees in Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid’s Royal Botanical Gardens.
Colored inflatable cones near the famous Museo del Prado.
Touch the giant cube…

Videos:

Puerta de Alcalá (Alcalá Gate), one of the most famous monuments in Madrid, with digital screens draped between its arches.

A giant electronic cube that responds to touch.  This was my favorite piece in Luna de Octubre, eerie yet beautiful.

A theater of electric actors, complete with sound effects and music.

 

Madrid Contra Barcelona

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the political crisis between Madrid and Barcelona while I was here. However, for someone who’s only been in Spain five weeks, it’s almost impossible to write a truly cogent opinion piece about the Catalonian referendum for independence. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore it. The tension, confusion and growing nationalism is literally palpable. As someone born and raised in the southern United States (Birmingham, Alabama), I’m wary of any kind of hardline secessionist movement. Of course, the American Civil War is a different case entirely. The Confederate States broke away from the Union to try to preserve an evil institution of slavery. Obviously, Catalonia’s reasons are vastly different, but if I’m being honest I don’t think the independence movement is a good idea. Most economists agree, at least in the short term, that neither Catalonia nor Spain would be better off without the other. At the same time, I’m also not in favor of the government’s violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and voters during the October 1st referendum.

As both sides dig in their heals, nationalism is on the rise throughout all of Spain. Just a few days ago, during a pro-unity rally in Barcelona, demonstrators carried flags from the Franco era and were even photographed giving the infamous fascist salute. My host father thinks the entire confrontation is political theater designed to gain President Rajoy and his Partido Popular (the conservative majority party) a broader power base. Though I certainly don’t think the referendum is manufactured (it is, after all, a social movement), my host father’s not wrong about a sudden rise in Spanish pride. When I arrived in Madrid in early September, there were almost no Spanish flags displayed in public. Now I can’t walk down a city block without seeing dozens of them flapping from the balconies. The same is true in Barcelona, where Catalonia’s primary reason for independence seems to boil down to: We are Catalonia, different from Spain. Nationalism anywhere is corrosive to open, democratic societies—its nature is to exclude one group by uplifting another. I see its divisive effects in my home country with a mentality that says “Make America Great Again.” The same kind of nationalism and short-sightedness that led to the American Civil War—the scars of which still linger in Confederate monuments and in white nationalist marches such as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Despite this spike in nationalism, almost everyone I talk to, whether they be Spanish or Catalonian, seems deeply disillusioned with the political leadership. This, I believe, is what’s really gnawing away at Spanish democracy and, to a larger extent, democracies throughout the world. Call it political lethargy or public apathy, call it what you want, no one has any faith that the elected officials represent the people anymore. Because they don’t. The political class, both in Spain, the United States, and many other countries, has become oligarchical. They enjoy privileges and benefits that the common citizen could only dream of. For instance, in Spain many politicians have a special protection known as aforamiento, which states that they are immune to prosecution in the lower courts (they can only be tried by the highest court in their region or by the Spanish Supreme Court). Furthermore, former ex-Prime Ministers receive lifelong salaries as well as two assistants and many additional stipends for office costs, rent and other “needs.” In the United States, politicians of every ilk receive taxpayer-subsidized healthcare (a right still denied to their constituents). Even worse, there is no limit to the amount of money that U.S. Senators and Congressmen can make off of insider trading (a federal crime for U.S. citizens). In return for all these perks, the tax-paying citizen receives “representation,” which in the age of the Internet and instantaneous communication is absolutely useless. What we’re witnessing now is an out-of-date system of government struggling to function in a much faster world where it’s easier than ever to rig elections, buy politicians, spuriously finance campaigns, and divide the public through a plethora of distorted facts and outright lies. Catalonians and Spaniards should understand that the enemy is not each other but rather their corrupt and bloated “representatives” which try to divide them. Spain has always been, and always will be, a patchwork of diverse cultures and kingdoms. It’s time for the country to embrace this multicultural history, instead of fracturing into ever smaller city-states. What Spain needs is not a new country but rather a new democracy.

Palacios, Castillos y Catedrales

Anyone who’s traveled to Europe has no doubt been stunned by the plethora of old, grandiose structures, almost all of which belonged either to the Catholic Church or to the monarchies. Versailles, Buckingham Palace, Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame, all of these massive edifices were not only meant to impress people with the supreme power of a divine god, and a divine king, they were also feats of engineering genius, defying what was possible at the time. In this regard, Spain (where the monarchy and Catholic Church were at times almost one and the same) is no different. In fact, I found myself so overwhelmed by the plentitude of royalty-commissioned art and gorgeous Baroque architecture that I began to feel a little numb to it all. One fantastically ornamented royal chamber blended with the next in an endless succession that, to me, began to feel less like a palace and more like a maze. If I covered each awe-inspiring church or castle I encountered in Spain, my blog would be just that: palaces, castles and cathedrals. For this reason, I’ve decided to cobble a few together into this one blog. This is not because each structure doesn’t deserve its own post (whole books have been written about these buildings), it’s more that I’m just not the expert to discuss them, and certainly the images do them more justice than my words ever could.

El Escorial: El Escorial is a perfect example of the old Spanish monarchy’s tight relationship with the church. This massive complex (more than 330,000 square feet) was constructed in just twenty-one years and has, at times, served as a royal palace, basilica, monastery, library as well as a university. Felipe II commissioned some of the most indelible artwork in Spain for his royal retreat here, including several pieces by El Greco (though, apparently, the king was not a fan of El Greco’s style).

The entrance to Escorial

Artwork from the ceiling of the library. Thank you, Nina Joubert-Bousson for these two wonderful photos!

Escorial is also the resting place for most of the Spanish monarchy.
Painted ceiling to rival that of Michelangelo’s at the Sistine Chapel.

Segovia Cathedral: This massive cathedral dominates the skyline of the ancient city of Segovia. Built in the mid-16th century, this church is a prime example of the late-Gothic style.

The facade of the very famous Segovia Cathedral
Main entrance into the Cathedral

A couple of shots of the interior

Alcázar de Segovia: The very famous Alcázar de Segovia (“Segovia’s Fortress”) is said to be one of the inspirations for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Started in the 12th century, and augmented multiple times over the centuries, the Alcázar was originally built over a Muslim fortress (which, in turn, had been built over the ruins of an even older Roman fort). The word “Alcázar” even comes from the Arabic al-qasr, meaning “the castle.” However, like many of the most impressive structures here in Spain, this castle also doubled as a residence for the royal family.

The only way in or out of the castle
One of many beautifully ornamented rooms; a mural of Queen Isabella I is painted on the far wall
A little blurry, but a closeup of the mural depicting the coronation of Isabella I

View of the castle from its highest point, the Tower of John II
Lastly, a view of Segovia from the tower

El Arte De Ser Un Artista

Spain is a country of many famous artists. From Miguel Cervantes to the poet Frederico Lorca to some of the world’s most influential painters, including Velázquez, Goya, Dalí and, of course, Picasso. It is no coincidence then that both of mis padres anfitriones (host parents) are artists as well. My host father Jose is a wonderful electric guitarist and teacher and my host mother Kela is a photographer and videographer. Perhaps one of the most surprising things I’ve learned about Madrid so far is what a center for the arts it has been throughout its history, just as much as New York City or Paris.

Two weekends ago I was feeling quite stressed about school and the workload I had. My host mother Kela informed that her sister and brother-in-law (both artists like her) were having their work exhibited in a prestigious gallery in the Matadero (slaughterhouse)—a former industrial part of the city that had been converted into a hub for exhibitions, performances, concerts and the like (think of the Meatpacking District in Manhattan but smaller). Kela told me that her sister Beatrice could get me in for free; all I had to do was show up and message her when I got there. Wanting a respite from the never-ending homework and studying I jumped at the opportunity.

A 30-minute metro ride later I arrive at Legazpi station, literally right across the street from the Matadero, a hulking walled complex with a water tower that advertises its name in bold black and white. I run into Beatrice and her husband on their way out (they are running home to take care of their 1-year-old daughter), but they give me a VIP pass good for two people and tell me, “Pásalo bein” (“Have fun”). I wander through the spacious Matadero with its red-tiled roofs and make my way to Nave 16 A, the warehouse where the exhibition is held. I present my pass to the girl at the entrance and she tells me, Adelante” (basically, “go ahead”). What I see inside truly astounds me: paintings and portraits (some wall-sized), sculptures, photographs, multi-media pieces, even an artist experimenting with neon tube lighting. There is not one piece or artist that does not deserve to be there. I wander mesmerized for almost two hours. All this beautiful art reawakens in me a thought I’ve often had, namely, that there are so many talented people in the world, and many of them will not get the credit they deserve in their lifetimes—or perhaps ever.

As an artist myself (an actor, writer and musician) I have often doubted the trajectory of my own life-success. In about seven months I will graduate from Skidmore College, and I still have not made up my mind whether I will go to graduate school or continue stumbling through the viciously competitive world of the arts. Truthfully, I can think of nothing more odious than squandering another two to three years (plus countless amounts of energy and money) in some institution that will use me to teach high-school level prerequisites, all while offering vague promises about “improvement” or “connections and opportunities” (what can I say, I have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to higher education). But the truth is, as with most industries, it’s who you know, and almost all artists nowadays (whether they be painters, writers or composers) go through a graduate-level program to get where they want to go. Half of me wants to go to graduate school and see if I can perhaps make the right connection there, and the other half wants to risk going down to New York City or Chicago and try my hand at theater companies, comedy troupes and talent agencies. Neither of these paths offers any promises. Both are gambles. However, one does not become an artist to live practically. I will have to make my decision based off of this sentiment. But for now, I’ll just leave you with a few photos of some of the pieces that left me feeling so inspired.

Alcalá de Henares

This past weekend the students of the Tufts-Skidmore exchange program took a tour of Alcalá de Henares. Situated about forty-five minutes outside the capital, this small, medieval town is not only the birthplace of one of the world’s most respected authors, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), but it also boasts many historical buildings and barrios (neighborhoods) that have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. As fun as it would be to try to describe these structures to you, language alone will not do them justice. Even this album of pictures is only a glimpse into a charming city that truly is a visión del pasado (vision of the past).

Plaza de Cervantes, the physical and cultural heart of Alcalá
Statue of the man himself, Miguel de Cervantes. Note that the pen (or in this case, a quill) is depicted as higher than the sword.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the rain gutters (depicting dragons’ heads) are a reference to Don Quixote.
What’s left of the Church of Santa Maria where Cervantes was baptized. The church was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.
The original Universidad de Alcalá. Founded in 1293, this plateresque facade wasn’t constructed until 1543.
The central patio interior (courtyard) to the university.
Another shot of the central courtyard.
The “Paraninfo,” one of the interiors of the university with a Mudéjar (Muslim-esque) coffered ceiling.
The Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace), also an erstwhile residence for many Spanish kings and queens.
The main entrance to the Palacio Arzobispal, where the Spanish monarchs and Christopher Columbus first discussed an expedition across the Atlantic.
Un nido de una cigüeña (a stork’s nest). The nests are quite common on the older, taller buildings. It’s against the law in Alcalá to move or disturb them.
Por fin (finally), something newer in the city, a mural of the famous windmill scene from Don Quixote.