Archive for May, 2013

13 May 2013

Spain is a country with a very different or even unique history in Europe and my earliest recollections were what I had read about the Spanish Civil War or the unrest in Basque. In the last few years, I had also developed a taste for Spanish food, especially Tapas. So, this time around, we planned a holiday to Spain. However, it is impossible to cover all the important parts of Spain in 10 days and so we decided to restrict ourselves to Madrid and Andalusia, with plans to visit Cordoba, Granada, Seville and Toledo.

Spain’s history dates back to about 1000 BC when Phoenician traders arrived in the Southern and Eastern parts of Spain. Later, like most of Europe, Spain too came under the Roman rule from about 200 BC to 400 AD. Romans called the peninsula “Hispania” and as was customary of them, developed infrastructure in the country with roads, aqueducts, temples, theatres etc. They also brought in Christianity which became a very important aspect of Spanish life. Most of Spain was covered by forests at that time and it was the Romans who started to cut down the trees for timber. So, deforestation is not a new theme, it started 2000 years ago! As the Roman power waned, Visigoths – a Germanic tribe – gained the upper hand and controlled Spain till the Eighth century. Visigoths seem to have been people who were not as culturally developed as the Romans and left very little impact on the country. Their main contribution seems to have been in creating a fighting mindset, which made a few kings withstand and ultimately overthrow the Muslim invasion and rule.

The Visigoths were not very good rulers and so the country was strife torn and in generally poor shape when Tariq ibn Zayid, the Governor of Tangier, a province in Morocco, landed in Gibraltar with 10,000 troops, in AD 711. The troops were mostly of North African origin and the Moors captured most of the Spanish peninsula and the territory they controlled was called Al-Andalus. This included main cities of the time like Cordoba, Granada and Seville and even Madrid to the North. It was first part of the Caliphate of Damascus which controlled most of the Muslim world and later a Caliphate was established in Cordoba in 929 with the then ruler Abd ar-Rahman III giving himself the title of Caliph. This was the peak of the power and glory of Cordoba.

One kingdom, called Asturias, had held out against the Moors and they started what was called the “Reconquista” in AD 722, to recapture the territories lost to Muslims. This war lasted for 800 years and ended with the fall of Granada in AD 1492 when all of Spain came under Christian rule. I am not sure whether the war was fought on religious grounds or for the then rulers to gain power, but it is portrayed as a war between the believers of Christianity and Islam. An interesting point is that the Christian kingdoms were also fighting amongst themselves while fighting the Muslims. Christians gained the supremacy with the marriage of Queen Isabella, the Queen of Castile, to King Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, in AD 1469, which brought together two powerful kingdoms. They were very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and managed to expel Muslims and Jews from the country. This royal pair is considered to be responsible for the unification and founding of modern Spain. By all accounts, they seem to have been astute rulers, who understood the great power of combining religion with the state. From whatever I read, I understood that Isabella had significant say in how the country was ruled and was not just a decorative queen. They set up the Inquisition, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of “non-believers”. This even had repercussions in far away India (we had our own Inquisitions in Goa). When they took control of Spain, there were huge populations of Jews and Muslims in the country but in short time, they banned Judaism and persecuted Muslims and Jews so much that these religions became non-existent in the country. Fittingly, they are referred to as the Catholic Monarchs. I was amused to read that when the Moors ruled Spain, Jews flourished and that all religions were allowed to practise their beliefs and worship their gods. Christians had a bit of a tough time as they had a tax applied on them, but nothing that had any resemblance to Inquisiton, with its inhuman torture and cruelty, was ever applied. Medieval Christianity had very little tolerance as they strove to bring “light” into the life of people. The only exception seems to have been the Christian king Pedro I, who was the king of Castile and Leon from 1350 to 1369.

Ferdinand and Isabella ruled Spain together and one of their important acts was to commission the voyage of Christopher Columbus. This led to the colonization of much of the Americas and brought a lot of wealth to Spain by way of gold and silver. This wealth was soon frittered away and by the time Spain arrived on the twentieth century, it had lost much of its glory. A series of inept rulers had squandered away its strengths and the country was in tatters. In the 1931 elections, a government comprising of socialists, republicans and centrists came to power and the King left on an exile. In 1933, this government was toppled by right-wing parties but in 1936, a left-wing government took over with the Communists leading the government. However, Spain was split down the middle by this time and soon, the Civil War erupted. This was between the elected government on one hand and the right-wing groups led by the Spanish military on the other. The leader of the military was General Franco and he was supported by Nazi Germany. It is believed that half a million people lost their lives in the Spanish civil war; my own personal recollection of the brutality of that war having been acquired when I read Hemingway’s “For whom the bell tolls”. In 1939, Franco became the Dictator of Spain and he ruled till 1975. He had groomed a royal to take over power on his death and Juan Carlos I, became the ruler of Spain when Franco died in 1975. The King was a supporter of democracy and by 1977 Spain had its elections and became a democracy with Juan Carlos I continuing as the King of Spain (he is the current King as well). Somehow, I felt it a bit strange that such an important country as Spain could have remained a dictatorship till as late a period as 1975; especially in Europe; a continent that had democratic leanings as early as 1215 with the signing of Magna Carta.

It was early evening when we got to Madrid and as it was still daylight outside, we went out for a stroll. We were staying in the city centre and so we could walk to Puerta del Sol; this is a busy plaza in Madrid and is considered the central point of Spain. Hence, this is the centre of the radial network of Spanish roads and considered KM 0. The square was very lively with a lot of people walking around. We could also see the statue of King Carlos III (called Charles III in English).

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From Puerta del Sol, Plaza mayor is a short walk away. This looks like Piazza San Marco in Venice; no, it looks like a poor cousin of Piazza San Marco. It seems this was a location where bullfights were held in the past as also executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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14 May 2013

We set out to Musee del Prado – the most famous museum in Spain – first thing in the morning. This is a huge museum that has about 7,500 art pieces of which only about 1,500 are exhibited. Since we had only about three hours planned, we decided to focus our attention on the most important 50 paintings as defined by a pamphlet provided in the museum. These included works by Goya, Velazquez, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio etc. What struck me about these paintings was how these artists had full mastery over lighting and composition. The masters seem to stand out in this aspect. Most of the paintings were on religious matters as the works were commissioned by the rulers, noblemen or the clergy. Hence the leeway available for the artists to paint other subjects was pretty limited. However, artists being artists, they did pull out some tricks by painting the holy figures like normal people or adding some impish point or the other in the painting, wherever they could get away with it. I think Caravaggio was a definite influence on this front. There were only few still life paintings produced in Spain at that time and this could be the reason for that; of course the Inquisition must have been going on for the most of the time and it would have been good strategy to just toe the line. Yet, there were some that were very different and what remained in my memory were the “black paintings” by Goya and “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch. The latter looked almost like modern art and it is a triptych. In the third panel, there is an image of a monster that eats men in hell and I am very sure that I have seen that image used by some painter in India recently. I could not recall the exact work though. A famous painting by Velazquez, “Las Meninas”, is also part of the most important 50 and is quite interesting. This shows the image of the artist (shown holding the brush) making a painting of the king and the queen (reflected in the mirror behind the princess’ head) with the princess and her friends dropping in to visit. Photography was not allowed in the museum and the few photos given below are sourced from the internet.

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Caravaggio: David Victorious over Goliath; Source: Internet

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Sanchez Cotan: Still life with game, fruit and vegetables; Source: Internet

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Bosch: The garden of earthly delights; Source: Internet

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Velazquez: Las Meninas; Source: Internet

Three hours were nowhere near enough and I could not do justice even to the 50 paintings. I would have loved to spend some more time with the black paintings of Goya; he painted these towards the end of his life and by that time, he had a pretty bleak view on humanity and the human race.

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Goya: Saturn devouring his child; Source: Internet

After lunch, we set out to see the stadium of Real Madrid football club. What struck me the most was their ability to sell their history and make money off it. The various trophies won by the club were exhibited and one could also see the players’ area and also get close to the pitch. It must be awesome to stand there on the field with a stadium full of fans howling and cheering.

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I got a good picture of some boots the club had used when they started about 100 years. This is my “still life”!

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By the time we were done with the stadium, it was drizzling a bit and we retired to our room.

15 May 2013

One of the most important attractions in Madrid, for me, was the Reina Sofia museum as that hosts a display of Salvador Dali’s and Picasso’s paintings, including “Guernica”. This was a keenly anticipated event and we set out for the museum in the morning. Alas, when we arrived there, we found that the museum was closed because of the local festival of San Isidro, who is the patron saint of Madrid. The museum had its weekly holiday on Monday and with this closure on Tuesday, it meant that we had miss out on it altogether. I was feeling a bit down and vowed to myself that I would make some time during my next visit to the city and make it there.

Fortunately, the palace was not closed and so we hopped on a taxi and drove there. The morning was cold and rainy and quite unlike what one expected of Spain. It is called Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and is built on the site of a 9th century fortress that was built by the ruler of Cordoba, when Madrid was still under the Moors. Later, a castle was built on this site in the 16th century and it burned down in 1734. King Felipe V ordered it rebuilt and the castle as we see it today was constructed between the years 1738 to 1755. As a result, there is not much by way of historical significance in this palace. The palace is used only occasionally for official functions as the royal family resides in another, smaller palace. This is a huge palace (supposed to be the largest in Europe by floor area) with around 3,000 rooms (thankfully, only a few are open to the public), many of which are very ornate and rich. One room called the Salon de Gasparini, stood out for its exquisite stucco ceiling and silk embroidered walls. The Throne Room was also quite impressive. Photography was not allowed inside the palace. The most interesting aspect of the palace was the variety of clocks that one found all over the place. Spanish monarchs seemed to have had a fascination with clocks and they even set-up a factory to manufacture clocks. In one room, there was a display of five Stradivarius violins. Stradivarius family made these violins in the 17th and 18th century and these are supposed by many, to be the finest stringed instruments ever made. It is amusing to think that even in this age of such technological development, instruments made three centuries ago are still unmatched. Antonio Stradivarius was the leading practitioner of the trade and his violins fetch millions of Dollars in auctions today.

There is a large courtyard as one enters the palace it offers a very nice view of the palace and a wooded area beside the palace. When looking at the wooded area, you feel that you are somewhere in the countryside and not the middle of a large, bustling city.

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From the palace, we walked to a monument, which one can arguably say, is quite out of place! This is Templo de Debod, which is an ancient Egyptian temple that dates back to the 4th century BC. When the Aswan Dam was being built on river Nile, many temples were under the threat of being submerged in the waters and this was one such. The Egyptian government donated this temple to Spain, in gratitude for the help offered by Spain in saving the temples of Abu Simbel.  The temple was taken apart block by block and rebuilt in Spain in 1968. It stands on a beautiful park looks very beautiful, surrounded by water. There are two gateways and then the temple itself. There were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the inside walls of the temples and it led to a sanctum sanctorum. The light was very poor and so I could not get a good photograph. There was not much explanation provided and so one could not get much information on the temple. Overall, it was good to see the temple and I am sure that sunsets would be great here and when the light is right, a great photo location!

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As it was rainy and a bit cold, we went back to our hotel. With this, our tour of Madrid had ended and we were to leave for Andalusia the next day. One thing that struck me in Madrid this time as compared to my previous visits was the increase in number of people begging on the street. While this is, in no way comparable to what one sees on the streets of any average city in India, the numbers were much larger than what I had encountered any time before. A sign of the hard times that Spain is going through, I am sure. I had read somewhere that during colonization period, Spain frittered away all they wealth they plundered from the colonies, in construction. Centuries later, when Spain became part of EU and got access to large funds, construction boomed once again. Today, unemployment in Spain is at a depressing 27% and it is said that 50% of the youth are unemployed. A bad situation indeed and I hope that this great country finds its way out of these problems soon.