Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Moscow has been a very familiar name since childhood and one had heard about the Red Square, Kremlin etc. from a young age. In November 2019, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of days at Moscow. The fascination with the USSR and consequently Moscow, had started with some of the Soviet publicity books that I had read when I was young. Kerala, with its Communist roots, was always interested in the USSR and the stories of the October revolution, Lenin etc. were quite commonplace.

Naturally, my first port of call was the Red Square. Given the Communist history of Russia, my impression was that the origin of the name Red Square must have been connected somehow with the revolution. However, I understand this is not the case. This has been the main commercial square in Moscow since many centuries and it has been called so since 1662 or so. It separates the Kremlin (palace of the Tsars and currently of the Russian President) and the historic merchant area. This has been a very important location in Russian history and many ceremonial activities including coronation of the Tsars took place in the Red Square.

This rather large square borders the Kremlin on one side and the main attractions are the most famous icon of Russia, the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s mausoleum etc. There is a very large department store (called the GUM) that occupies one side of the Red Square where the erstwhile commercial quarter was located. This store is more than a hundred years old, I understand.

 

On one side of the Red Square is the Kazan Cathedral. After defeating the Polish army in 1612, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky entered the Kremlin through the Red Square and in commemoration of that success, he built this Cathedral and consecrated it in 1625. The original building was of wood and burned down in a fire in 1632 and was rebuilt using brick and consecrated in 1636. It was considered as one of the most important churches in Russia and on the anniversary of liberation of Moscow from the Polish forces, the Tsar and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church used to lead a procession around the Red Square. As part of removing religion from public life, Stalin ordered the demolition of the church in 1936 and a temporary building to host the offices of the Communist International was constructed on the site. After the fall of USSR, this was the first church to be reconstructed (1990-1993) and has been made to look like the old church.

 

St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most reproduced image from Moscow and is regarded as a cultural symbol of the country. It is now a museum. its original name was The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia (1547 to 1584), constructed this church to celebrate the capture of two cities – Kazan and Astrakhan. The construction took six years from 1555 to 1561 and it had nine chapels with eight chapels around the central ninth one. A tenth chapel was added later, in 1588, to honour a local saint named Vasily (Basil in English). In the Soviet era, this church was taken over by the state and converted to a museum and all religious activities stopped. After the collapse of USSR, some church services have been resumed since 1997.

This building has a very unique architecture and resembles a fire rising up to the sky. Supposedly, there is no other building with a similar architecture in Russia. I read somewhere that an old mosque in the captured city of Kazan may have been the inspiration for this architecture and to the untrained eye, the building does look more like a mosque than a church, with its massive domes.

 

The interior of the Cathedral is very beautiful and richly decorated with icons, altars and nice paintings.

 

 

The GUM department store is a very impressive looking building and the roads outside were all decorated, possibly in anticipation of the New Year and Christmas (Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7th January).

 

The next day morning, I decided to visit one of the most popular monuments in Russia – Lenin’s Mausoleum. It seems this monument attracts the highest number of visitors in a year. Lenin’s body has been embalmed and displayed here since his death in 1924; except for a brief period during the Second World War when the body was moved to a city in Siberia as it was feared that the Germans might capture Moscow. The mausoleum stands on one side of the Red Square; the square, squat red marble tiled building on the left side of the image below. When I arrived, there was a queue waiting for the museum to be opened; Mercury had fallen below zero and it was extremely cold, with a wicked wind, but people waited patiently.

 

After Stalin died in 1953, his body was also embalmed and displayed right next to Lenin’s. However, Stalin’s body was removed in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization drive and buried in the Kremlin wall along with other leaders. Photography was not allowed inside the Mausoleum and so I could not take a picture of the body. It looks as if Lenin is sleeping on his back, with a blanket covering the lower half of his body. It looks very life like and you wouldn’t think almost a hundred years have passed since his death.

Two thoughts crossed my mind as I stood there looking at the great leader’s body. This was a man who had changed the world and made a new order of society and politics possible. John Reed, an American Journalist and Communist, was a witness to the October Revolution and he saw the whole event unfold, from close quarters. In about a year from then, he published his book “Ten days that shook the world”, which is an eyewitness account of the revolution. This was an unbiased account as it was published in 1919, before the people that came to power after the revolution had any opportunity to influence what was written. As you go through the book, it becomes very evident that the two people that made the revolution possible were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It is also equally evident that Josef Stalin did not have much of a role in the revolution. In the whole book, he is just mentioned in two places and that too as passing references. From the two, the body of one lies preserved in all this grandeur as a sign of respect and gratitude of the state while the other, Leon Trotsky, lies buried in a small grave in a non-descript cottage in Mexico City; after he was murdered by the KGB agents sent by the usurper, Stalin.

 

The second thought was about the seeming absurdity of making a shrine out of a Communist leader’s dead body. In a strange way, I was reminded about the relics and preserved dead bodies of Christian saints. I am sure that the state benefits from the symbolism of Lenin’s dead body but somehow I felt it was not in keeping with what this great leader stood for. After all, he was the proponent of a philosophy which was rooted in logic and not symbolism.

Next stop on the agenda was The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church was built in the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1931 on the orders of Stalin. It was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, after the fall of the USSR. It is an imposing building and stands right on the banks of the Moscow river. You can walk up to the terrace there are some very beautiful views of the Moscow city from there.

 

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is just a short walk from the Cathedral. It has the largest collection of European art in Moscow and is a visual treat. There were works by many masters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin etc.

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: Hans Vredeman De Vries

View of the old market in Dresden: Bernardo Bellotto

Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale: Canaletto

View of the Grand Canal in Venice from the Fondamenta Del Vin: Michele Marieschi

The bridge across the Marne at Creteil: Paul Cezanne

Nude woman sitting on a couch: Pierre Auguste Renoir

White water lilies: Claude Monet

Luncheon on the grass: Claude Monet

A mother’s kiss: Eugene Carriere

Girls on the bridge: Edvard Munch

Young acrobat on a ball: Picasso

Spanish woman from Majorca: Picasso

Old jew and a boy: Picasso

Jaguar attacking a horse: Henri Rousseau

The muse inspiring the poet: Henri Rousseau

Mirror above a washstand: Pierre Bonnard

The King’s wife: Paul Gauguin

Her name was Vairaumati: Paul Gauguin

Gathering fruit: Paul Gauguin

What, are you jealous: Paul Gauguin

The ford: Paul Gauguin

Landscape at Auvers after the rain: Van Gogh

The red vineyard at Arles: Van Gogh

The prison courtyard: Van Gogh

 

Bolshoi Theatre is a very well known Russian icon with the Bolshoi Theatre Company having been founded in 1776. The company operates in various cities in Russia and the building in Moscow itself is very well known and is even featured in the Russian One Hundred Ruble note. I was staying very near the Theatre and used the opportunity to watch a short performance. This was on one of the side stages and not the main one and was an orchestra. It lasted for about 40 minutes and was quite enjoyable.

 

The State Tretyakov Gallery has the best collection of Russian fine art and was started by a merchant from Moscow by name of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in 1856. Having seen some works by Nicholas Roerich in the gallery in Mysore; I was quite keen to visit this collection of Russian art. I found that many of the works from the 19th Century had very relevant and interesting social themes; especially those by an artist named Vasily Grigorevich Perov. Interestingly, the Gallery did not have many works from the Soviet era; not sure why.

 

This painting is titled “The appearance of Christ to the people” by the artist Alexander Ivanov. It is a huge work measuring 5.40m x 7.50m and this was the most important work in the life of Ivanov. It took him twenty years to finish this painting and he died within a few months of finishing the painting. John the Baptist is the central figure in the painting (wearing an animal skin) and points to the Christ who appears in the distance. Ivanov has painted himself into the portrait as the wanderer with a staff, sitting right in front of John the Baptist. The artist made several small works, probably as studies for the painting, and these were also exhibited at the museum.

 

This piece by Konstantin Flavitsky is titled Princess Tarakanova and is based on the story of a young woman named Tarakanova from Italy, who claimed a right to the Russian throne. Catherine II lured her to Russia and imprisoned her in Petropavlovskaya fortress in a cell that was known to flood every time the waters in the nearby river rose. The painting shows a desperate Tarakanova standing up on her cot as the flood waters have reached almost up to the bed. There is no evidence of whether Tarakanova was indeed killed like this but the painting caused a lot of public outcry and Ivanov was later forced to announce that he had made up the subject from a novel.

I liked this painting (The Unequal Marriage by Vasily Pukirev) quite a lot and it seems it was received with a lot of enthusiasm when it was painted as it did not stick to conventional subjects used till then, but instead chose to show a social issue that was common at that time – old, rich men marrying young women who are unwilling, but are forced into the marriage. A young man, supposedly, the girl’s lover, looks on from the back.

 

Painting titled “Easter Procession in a Village” by VG Perov. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “In the early 1860s, Perov created a series of anticlerical paintings. Its main theme was the clergy that forgot their duty. A bored and drunken procession carrying icons and gonfalons is passing by the viewer. The peasants with half-closed eyes are wading towards a precipice as if they were blind. Their leader, a drunken priest, who has crushed an Easter egg underfoot, has abandoned them. Not far from him we see a woman holding an icon whose image is effaced. Farther off there is a poor man carrying an icon upside down. But the All-Seeing eye on the gonfalon is there as a reminder that these people won’t escape the Supreme Judgment. The dull landscape, dissonant movements of the participants in the procession and bleak dawn emphasise the ugliness of the whole scene. The painting was removed from an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg on grounds of it being an “immoral” work. Its reproduction in the press was banned, and P.M. Tretyakov was advised not to show it to visitors.”

 

This painting titled “Troika” by Perov was the one that touched me the most. It was painted in 1865 and in those days, peasants used to migrate to the city in search of work, because of extreme poverty and their children used to work as apprentices. Perov used three such children as his models in this painting. The boy in the middle was living with his mother and he had no father; they were very poor as well. Shortly after modelling for the painting, the boy contracted some disease and died. The mother was distraught and heart broken and she sold all her belongings and took the meagre amount she had to Perov and asked for him to sell the painting to her as she wanted to be able to see her boy whenever she wanted. By that time, Perov had finished the painting and it was displayed at the The Tretyakov Gallery. Perov took the mother to the gallery and showed her painting.

Funeral Procession: VG Perov

 

Yet another work by Perov that speaks about the social issues of the time: “Tea-party at Mytishchi near Moscow”. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “Ordinary on the face of it, the scene of tea drinking under the shade of a tree is transformed by Perov into an accusatory picture that deals with an acute social issue. The table turned cornerwise to the viewer with a samovar on it halves the small canvas, which is almost square-sized. The world of the painting’s characters also breaks into two parts: on one side, we see a fat, well-fed priest, on the other side – a poor old man and a boy. The impression of social drama is reinforced by the Order of the Hero of the Crimean War on the old man’s chest. At the same time, the idyllic background landscape and the circular rhythm of the painting’s composition embody the idea that justice and harmony lost should be restored in the world.”

 

This painting is titled “Landscape Steppe” and is by an artist named Arkhip Kuindzhi. This work was so very different from the other paintings and I was curious to note that it was painted between 1890 and 1895. I am not sure whether there were many paintings in this style at that time. I was reminded of a photo by Andreas Gursky, which is among the most expensive photos ever sold, having fetched a sum of $4.3 Million in 2011.

 

This work titled “There is Life Everywhere” by Nikolai Yaroshenko was yet another image that I liked a lot. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “ The topic of social contradictions was one of the most important for Yaroshenko. This painting was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story What Men Live By. The artist originally planned to title his work as Where There Is Love, There Is God. Prisoners have huddled up together at the window of a convict car to feed pigeons. The painting’s idea was to show humanity maintained in inhuman conditions. The central group reminds the Holy Family. Like many other Wanderers, Yaroshenko used parallels with the Gospel to enhance the social resonance of his canvas. “This speaks so much to the heart,” said Leo Tolstoy about this painting.”

 

This painting “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi immediately catches the eye because of the very desolate nature. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “The artist looks upon the Sacred history in the context of the issues of his day. Gospel themes and images served at the time as a way to express ideas of what was good and just. Christ’s personality was understood as the “perfect human being” embodiment; the life journey of a progressive person was a reflection of His earthly path. Kramskoi wrote: “…There is a moment in the life of every human being, who is created in the image of God however slightly or greatly, when they are in a quandary – whether to take the ruble and deny the Lord or not to yield a single step to the evil.” The painting took on a topical nature thanks to the resemblance of Christ’s pose on Kramskoi’s canvas to the pose of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the famous portrait by V.G. Perov. Both paintings were made in 1872 and both were shown at the very same travelling exhibition. Eternal, panhuman problems are the central theme of the painting.”

 

This is a huge work titled “The Princess of a Dream” by an artist named Mikhail Vrubel. It measures 7.5m x 14m and was painted in 1896 with the help of two others. It speaks about a love affair between Geoffroy Rudel and Princess Melisandre. Supposedly, Rudel heard about the beauty of the Princess and travelled across the sea to meet her. Unfortunately, he contracted some illness during his voyage and died at the time of their first meeting and with this, the Princess became a nun. I am not sure whether this is fiction or true story. I was not very exposed to Russian art in the past and Tretyakov definitely set that right. It was quite a beautiful experience.

Moscow has very wide roads and walking around the city itself is a pleasure. I was staying close to the Red Square and many buildings around that area were very impressive. There is some more to see in Moscow and two days were not enough. I hope to be back one day.

 

Montmartre has always had a romantic kind of appeal given its association with famous artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso etc. and because of its association with events like Paris Commune. I had not been able to visit Montmartre during any of my previous visits to Paris and this time, when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and set off with my camera. The first sight that greets one as we get out of the metro is the famous Moulin Rouge. This iconic nightclub, which has even made it into celluloid, has been around for more than a hundred years and is often a prime destination for the partying crowd.

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A short walk takes one to the Montmartre Cemetery. As odd as it may sound, I find it kind of peaceful to visit cemeteries, especially the old ones. One gets a strange feeling when looking at the resting places of the famous and the powerful, the dead. As Spring had not yet started in Paris, there were no leaves on the trees and that added to the ambience with the shadows and bare lines.

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Montmartre Cemetery is quite large and was started in 1825 when Paris started running out of space to bury their dead. The government banned burying of corpses within the city limits and Montmartre, which was outside the city limits and also had abandoned quarries, proved to be the right setting for a cemetery. It has now become a place to visit in the map of Montmartre because of the numerous celebrities buried there like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, Adolphe Sax etc. There was a detailed map available in the cemetery which showed the tombs of the famous people buried there but it was a bit confusing and I could not locate Degas.

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The next stop on my agenda was the Dali Museum though I was not very sure of how it might turn out to be as I suspected that there was an overtly commercial angle to it. The day was quite sunny and Montmartre presented interesting sights as one passed by.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in this house in Rue Lepic with his brother Theo from 1886 to 1888. Theo owned this house and continued living here even after Vincent moved on.

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Montmartre once had thirty two functional windmills, of which only two have survived. These can be found at “Moulin de la Galette” and this was a popular subject for many artists like Van Gogh, Renoir, Corot etc.

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The Dali Museum, though small, turned out to be quite a treasure trove. There were many sketches done by Dali, sculptures etc. “The Persistence of Memory” inspired sculptures were quite fantastic. Dali had done many sketches based on Alice in Wonderland and also a famous comic strip.

This work “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” was presented in Paris in 1933 with an actual baguette (which was then eaten by Picasso’s dog!) and it evoked mixed reactions as such objects as bread and corn had never appeared in art works before. Ants are an oft-used motif in Dali’s work, signifying decay.

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The Space Elephant is a sculpture motivated by Dali’s work “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and the “Cosmic Rhinocerous” represents Dali’s fascination with objects that have a hard exterior and a soft interior.

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Alice in Wonderland was another favourite subject for Dali and here are a series of sketches that he did based on Lewis Carrolls’ book. In the sculpture, Alice is shown as a young woman, which kind of contrasts with the innocence that Carroll accorded to Alice, in his story.

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There were many works based on The Persistence of Memory and I liked these the best.

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Next was a work that showed Dali’s interest in Anamorphosis. On one hand, it is the painting of an insect done in great detail but the work becomes complete when one looks at the cylindrical mirror where one can see the self-portrait of Dali, shown as a clown.

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These are some sketches that Dali made for a Parisian publisher in 1971 based on some old engravings. These have been modified into Dali’s own style with grotesque figures.

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This is a work in a classic style but replete with Dalinian symbols like a watch, an egg, two ants and the divided torso.

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In 1942, Dali produced a backdrop “The Ship Aground” which was inspired by Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and its tory of impossible love. Dali tries to show a world torn between love and hate in the colours blue and red, emphasising the duality of passion.

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Roman poet Ovid, wrote a series of three books titled “The Art of Love” in the year 2 CE. This was supposed to be a series of instructions to men on how to attract women. Supposedly, this work so enraged Emperor Augustus that he exiled Ovid (censorship and moral policing seems to have been active even then). In any case, the work excited Dali and he produced these etchings based on it.

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“Woman Aflame” is famous work by Dali and I quote this interpretation from what was pasted alongside the work: “This work combines two of Dali’s obsessions: fire and a feminine figure with drawers. The flames coming from her back represent the hidden intensity of subconscious desire, while the drawers express the mystery of hidden secrets. Open drawers point to the private, subconscious of the human being. The flames are supported by crutches “generally used to support fragile soft structures” according to Dali. This faceless woman devoured by flames is the symbol of the mystery of femininity.”

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Next on my list was a visit to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in the heart of Montmartre. Construction of this church started in 1875 (soon after the Paris Commune was crushed) and finished in 1914. It was consecrated in 1919 after the First World War finished. To many of the free spirited inhabitants of Montmartre, this church represented the last nail in the coffin of their freedom and they viewed this as an imposition of the will of the state.

En route to the church, I passed through the famous Place du Tertre, which was a haunt of artists in the heydays of Montmartre. Even today, one can see some artists with their tripods and easels offering to make portraits of tourists and selling their work.

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Maybe because I had an impression of Sacré-Coeur as a symbol of oppression, the first image I captured of the church was this – more like a picture from the sets of a horror film!

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The Basilica is quite impressive and it also offered some interesting views of Paris as it stands on a hilltop. Photography was not allowed inside the church and so I couldn’t capture any images there. It looked pretty much like other European Catholic churches with plush interiors. Entrance to the bell tower was closed and that was a pity as that would have offered some more interesting views of Paris.

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After you get down from hill, a few minutes’ walk takes you to the “I Love You” wall. This is set up in a small garden and has an area of about 430 sq. ft. The phrase “I Love You” is written all over the wall in about 250 languages. I could spot Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi etc. on the wall. This seemed to be a must visit spot for the romantically inclined as I could find many people expressing their love in front of the wall.

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When you wander through Montmartre, you see plenty of buildings that were associated with artists – like this one which claims to have been frequented by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet etc.

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One of the quaint little delights in Montmartre is the Le Clos Montmartre a tiny vineyard bang in the centre of town spread across an area of about 16,000 sq. ft. The produce from this vine yard (about 1000 bottles of wine) is auctioned off during the annual harvest festival and the proceeds used for development projects in the area. Supposedly, this vineyard was started in 1933 to stop real estate developers from grabbing the space – I wish we had similar projects in Bangalore.

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Just across the street from the vineyard is the oldest cabaret in Montmartre – “Au Lapin Agile”. It was started in 1860 under the name “Au rendez-vous des voleurs”. In 1875, artist Andre Gill painted the image of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan and people started calling the place “Le Lapin à Gill”, meaning “Gill’s rabbit”, which later on evolved to the present name. This was also a popular haunt for artists, anarchists, students, writers etc. Picasso even made a painting titled “Au Lapin Agile”.

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My last visit was Musee de Montmartre, which was the oldest house in Montmartre, having been constructed in the middle of the 17th century. Many artists lived here, including Suzanne Valadon and Renoir had painted in the gardens of the house. There were many works of art in the museum with many works from Valadon.

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Montmartre still retains a bit of its former anarchist spirit with graffiti to be seen in many areas.

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Although I had spent a good many hours around Montmartre, I hadn’t covered all the sights. However, I could sense the spirit of Montmartre, that still lingers there – a heady mixture of art and anarchy. One could only wonder how it would have been in the twentieth century when Montmartre had its day in the sun. Just roaming around the place was great fun and I am sure I will be back here one day. For now, dusk had sent into Montmartre.

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21 May 2013

Seville, the land of flamenco and bull fighters, was also an important port with a river that connected it to the Atlantic, a 100 km away. It was from that Christopher Columbus set sail to East Indies and ended up discovering America. Immediately after the Moor invasion in the Eighth century, Seville was under the Caliphate of Cordoba. After Cordoba fell in AD 1031, Seville became a small kingdom by itself and was ruled by the Almohad dynasty. As with the rest of Andalusia, Seville also was under constant attack because of the Christian Reconquest and finally, it fell to Fernando III of Castille in AD 1248.

As per the guidebooks, the most important sight in Seville is the Cathedral and so that was our first stop for the day. The Cathedral is built on the location of an old mosque, which was demolished in AD 1401. The construction of the new church took more than a hundred years and was completed in AD 1507. The majestic minaret of the old mosque, called La Giralda, was kept intact and is part of the Cathedral. The building is huge and awe inspiring.

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There was a queue to enter the Cathedral and joined up. The square around was already active with many buggies and such, available for fun rides around the town.

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The La Giralda got this name after a weathervane, in the shape of a statue, was installed on top of the minaret in the Sixteenth Century. This statue represents the victory of Christian faith and that must be why it was placed on top of the minaret that represented Islam. A replica of the status is displayed as one enters the yard of the Cathedral.

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This Cathedral was the largest in the world when it was commissioned and supposedly, the authorities wanted such an impressive building that everyone would think they were “mad”! In any case, it is a colossal structure with very many impressive chapels.

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What attracted me the most was the tomb of Christopher Columbus. This tomb is supposed to contain his mortal remains though there is controversy on the subject as he was originally buried in the Dominican Republic and it is said that most of his remains are still there. The four pall bearers represent the four kingdoms of Spain – Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. The significance of Columbus in Spain’s history is borne out by the fact that the Catholic Monarch, Queen Isabella herself is shown as the pall bearer representing Leon (on the front left with the oar in hand). The other pall bearer in the front holds a spear with a pomegranate, showing the fall of Granada (Granada means pomegranate in Spanish). I was very attracted to this tomb and I spent a lot of time around it. That I was standing close to a man (even if it were the remains) who was such an adventurer and visionary, was a special feeling.

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There are a good many chapels inside the Cathedral and many are very ornate. The one that attracted me the most was the Chapel of Saints Justa and Rufina. They were sisters who lived in Seville in the late Third Century and were ardent Christian believers. They refused to convert to pagan faith and the (pagan) authorities who ruled Seville at that time had the sisters tortured and killed them finally. During one of the pagan festivals, the pagans destroyed the utensils that the sisters had made and in retaliation, they broke a statue of Venus. According to legend, during their imprisonment, one of the sisters (Rufina) was thrown to the lions but the lions refused to attack her and licked her feet. These two incidents are represented in a painting placed in the altar of the chapel dedicated to them. I was wondering whether they would have thought that their story would be remembered 1200 years later and retold when a church was built. Supposedly, the resistance of the sisters represented the resistance of Seville. The La Giralda is also shown in the background in the picture.

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This Cathedral was meant to be a showpiece for Christianity and so is full of pomp and splendour. Many treasures that belong the Cathedral are also displayed. I guess this is to impress visitors as to glory of the faith. However, I could not help feeling that this was quite at loggerheads with what Jesus Christ had imagined.

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The keys of the city of Seville were also to be seen. These were the keys handed over to the Christian conquerors in AD 1248 when the city was captured.

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The La Giralda is about 90 metres high and it is possible to climb up to the bell tower. As can be expected, the views from the tower are fantastic.

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Right next to the Cathedral is the Alcazar, residence of many generations of Kings and Caliphs. This ancient building was first constructed in the Tenth Century and then renovated and rebuilt. Even today, a portion of this palace is used as the official residence of the royal family when in Seville.

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As one steps past the impressive gate, the Alcazar soars in front of the eyes in all its majesty. The façade is very Islamic as care was taken by Pedro I (Peter the First) of Castille, who rebuilt the palace. Pedro I was a Christian king who seems to have been quite an interesting personality. For starters, he seems to be referred to as Peter the Just and Peter the Cruel. The nobility and the aristocracy called him Peter the Cruel whereas the common people called him Peter the Just. Given that he lived in the Fourteenth Century and the subsequent recording of history must have been quite influenced by the nobility, I am inclined to believe that Peter must have been a king who understood the sufferings of the poor and supported them. He also seems to be the only Christian king who exhibited religious tolerance. When he rebuilt the Alcazar, he made sure that he used artisans who were proponents of Islamic architecture and he also used perishable material such as wood and plaster (supposedly, Quran reserves eternal structures for Allah). In some of the doorways, there are Arabic inscriptions that mean: “None but Allah conquers”, “Happiness and prosperity are benefits of Allah” etc. He appreciated the Islamic culture that existed in Seville at the time and it was evidenced in his dress and food. Peter also gave permissions to the Jews to build a synagogue in Toledo. I was quite impressed, especially when I contrasted this against the religious intolerance fostered by the Catholic Monarchs, who were to come later, who ushered in the black period of Spanish Inquisition. Incidentally, a friend told me later that there is still an office of the Inquisition in Seville (it is called by a different name these days).

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This palace is Seville’s answer to the Alhambra of Granada. The rooms are decorated with rich carvings and highly ornate walls and ceilings. I was just lost in the beauty of the place as I wandered from room to room. It was here that the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, spent time while preparing for their conquest of Granada. They used to meet with Christopher Columbus in this palace to discuss his expedition. The beauty of the whole place is breath-taking.

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It was getting late by the time we finished the Alcazar and we decided to visit Plaza de Espana before calling it a day. Plaza de Espana is located in the Maria Luisa Park and was built in 1928 for the World Fair hosted by Seville in 1929. This is a beautiful semicircular building with many exquisite bridges and a very nice fountain in the centre.

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We spent some time wandering around the Plaza and then headed back. Overall, it was a very satisfying day and the personality that stayed with me was Pedro I. He must have been an extraordinary man to have shown such tolerance in those days when everyone else seemed to be headed the other way. I was left wishing how better off we would be if only some of our current leaders could borrow a leaf from his book!

19 May 2013

There is great charm in taking a drive around the countryside and dropping in at various quaint towns you find on the way. I had heard of the white towns of Andalusia and was very interested to have a close look – I also remembered seeing them in some movie. The day being nice and sunny, we decided to explore white towns that day.

The white towns of Andalusia are located to the northern part of Malaga and Cadiz provinces and so we had an hour’s drive to the nearest one. During the Reconquest, the Moors started retreating up the mountains when their main cities in the plains fell to the Christians. They set up small villages in difficult to reach places and that allowed them to hold on much longer even after the major towns had all been captured. However, eventually, these villages were also captured and have now become towns. The walls of all buildings in these towns are white and hence the name “white towns”.

I had charted out a rough course and we set out accordingly. The first stop was planned to be Setenil de las Bodegas, a white town different from others. While others had set up their villages in hills and on the mountains, the people of Setenil had made their dwellings in the deep caves beneath the cliffs of the River Trejo. The drive along the countryside is very enjoyable, especially on a sunny day. The Andalusian countryside is fully utilised with olive plantations all across. We could also see a lot of wind mills on many of the hilltops.

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The drive, being through high country, is very enjoyable and you have great sights everywhere. I was in very good mood as I drove up to Setenil, little realizing the perils that lay ahead. As we approached the town centre, I noticed that the roads were getting narrower. Roads in old towns in Europe are generally narrow and I did not pay this much attention; nor did I notice that most cars on the road were small hatchbacks unlike the full sized sedan that we had rented. Soon, we found ourselves in a spot where the car could just pass and the road seemed to curve on ahead. It suddenly struck me that if the road narrows any further, our car would not pass. In a wave of panic, I had visions of the car being stuck and some recovery truck towing it away, the day wasted and the pocket a lot emptier. However, there was no option but to go ahead and so, we inched along and soon spied a plaza at the end of the road but as always, to get to that safe place, we had to go through a particularly narrow opening! Anyway, after losing much sweat and with the wing mirrors folded in and with great support from Sandhya and a few passersby, we finally passed through, albeit with a small scratch on one of the mirrors. A definite blow to my driver pride!

The effort was well worth it though, as the town was very beautiful with wonderful small walkways and tracks that led up and down various inclines. The cave dwellings have mostly been converted to bars and cafes. It was wonderful to walk around and we spent some time walking around. It was obvious to me that a gym would have no business in this town where you were climbing up or down all the time!

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After some more excitement, which included driving into a dead end in a cave and some hair raising reversing, we drove on to our next destination – Olvera. This one turned out to have slightly wider streets than Setenil and so my blood pressure was in check when we got to the town square. There is a very nice church and castle in Olvera but both were closed when we got there and so could not go in.

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Next on the agenda was Zahara de la Sierra, a white town that seemed to be a must-visit based on what I read on the net. As we drove along, we passed some white towns and they are very beautiful to see, especially from a distance.

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As we approached Zahara, we could see it in the distance and the view was fantastic indeed.

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There is a reservoir in the valley beside the town. The drive was not so difficult as the roads were reasonably wide. There are some beautiful cafes in Zahara and it is a sheer please to relax by the roadside, drinking a coffee or beer. It was just great to wander around this small town and I was wondering how it would be to live in such a small town. The population must have been below one thousand.

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There is also a 12th century castle keep in Zahara and it is a steep 15 minute climb from the town centre. The views from this keep are simply out of the world, especially that of the reservoir.

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By this time, it was growing late and we headed back to our hotel. It was a delightful day and it would have been a great loss indeed, had we not done this drive around the white towns of Andalusia.