¿Qué tal, amigos? That is, how’s it going, everyone? I hope this next post on my adventures abroad finds you doing well and making your own discoveries of the fantastic world in which we live.
After a weekend at home in Toledo and the Carnaval festivities held there (and throughout Spain), the past week was pretty relaxed. It ended with the Fund’s big trip for the semester: a journey to the cities of Córdoba and Granada in Andalucía, the southern region of Spain that, due to its strong traditions of flamenco and la corrida de toros (bullfighting), is the image that comes to mind when many people hear the word “Spain.”
On Monday, I rested after my conversations with family and friends in the United States the previous night, then worked on homework and other tasks until my internship at the Biblioteca de Castilla – La Mancha. Due to the vacations given for Carnaval on Monday, not many people were at the English practice sessions either day. In fact, the two people I had for the grupo juvenil on Monday were there for the first time! It was wonderful to meet them, however: one, a man from Morocco, will continue coming to the sessions, while the other, a woman from Galicia (a region in the northwest of Spain) studying to be an English teacher, was visiting Toledo for the day and decided to stop in and practice her English. The grupo infantil was similarly small, with only three of the eight regular students showing up.
In my one class on Tuesday (Política y Sociedad de América Latina), I received my first midterm project grade, in this case for the exam assigned for the course. I was relieved and happy to see that it was an “A”! I hadn’t been too worried about any of my midterm tasks, but I still always worry a bit over how essays, tests, and the like will be graded. Carnaval had a continuing effect on the English practice sessions: only one person showed up for the day’s grupo juvenil; no one (as usual) showed up for the grupo infantil. When I returned home, I had a delicious and satisfying dinner with my host family, basically like every night but this evening a bit more special since Ash Wednesday – and the start of Lent – was the next day. My host mother urged me to take two Ferrero Rocher chocolates, telling me that, “Tomorrow is Lent, but today is still Carnaval.” Isn’t that wonderful? This is just one of the many reasons I am so grateful and happy to have been placed with my host family for the semester.
Wednesday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the opening day for the season of self-examination, reflection, and renewed commitment to God preceding the Paschal Mystery and Easter, otherwise known as Lent. My host father was nice enough to take me to Mass with him at 7:30 that morning. For some reason, I thought the mass was at 6:30, so I woke up and came down from my bedroom an hour earlier than I had to. Qué bolo, ¿no? (How silly, right?) Even getting up for a 6:30 a.m. Mass wasn’t that much of a struggle for me, thankfully. I went to a 6 a.m. Mass on the day for years with my parents due to my dad’s job that started at 7 a.m. The Mass reminded me a lot of these past Masses, actually: a bit quicker than usual due to the need most people had to get to work for the day but otherwise meaningful. The priest applied the ashes to my head in a cross as is commonly done in America; the norm in Spain, according to my peers who went to Mass at other churches in the city and to other people I talked with, is sprinkling the ashes over the believer’s head. In any case, my ash application was quite light, so much so that a few hours later I couldn’t even tell I had gone to Mass. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospels, however, it isn’t so much outward observance and pomp that matters as our inward attitude and devotion (Matthew 6:16-18). Other than fasting for the day and generally trying to think more seriously about my faith life and the actions inspired by it, I did not have any firm Lenten resolution. That would take shape over the next few days.
Later on Wednesday came theology and my next returned midterm task; from here on out they would all be exams. This one also had an “A” marked on it, making the day and week even better. Another highlight of the day was my realization of the connection between the Spanish ayuno (fast) and desayuno (breakfast). Just like in English, breakfast is quite literally a “breaking” of a fast. Little aspects of etymology like this fascinate me to no end, especially when they occur in multiple languages!
Thursdays, as you probably know by now, reader, are my busiest days, and this week’s Thursday went much like the others. In my curso de prácticas (internship class), we split into small groups created the last week and reenacted short scenes from movies we had watched together to show the changes in Spanish family life from the 1950s through the present. My group’s movie, Familia (1996), was quite strange, but the scene we recreated went well enough, and I enjoyed having the chance to act a little.I received my exam back for España desde 1936 and was grateful and joyful to see that it, too, had received an “A.”
I didn’t get my art exam back, but the professor told us he would email us individually with our grades. In the morning session of our class, we visited the Museo de Santa Cruz, located just behind the Zocodover Plaza of Toledo. Originally built as a hospital, the building shows the first phase of Renaissance art and architecture in Toledo, when architects knew the “vocabulary” of the language through books from Italy but did not yet know the “grammar” of it, resulting in mixes between Spanish and Italian architecture and strange additions to the building (such as columns bending around a doorframe). The patio or cloister of the hospital, its surrounding arcs and grand staircase most of all, was our main focus. It is a very peaceful place, well-ventilated (one of the motivations behind the location of the building in order to prevent infection according to medical thought at the time) and quiet.
After the cloister, we went into the main body of the museum for a few minutes. The Museo de Santa Cruz is relatively small as museums go but is chock-full of artifacts and information about Spain during the 16th century. It is free from 5:30-6:30 p.m., its last hour of operation, each day it is open, and I actually returned to it during this time the same day to look more closely at its holdings.
After my last class on Thursday, I headed home for a dinner with my family before returning to the Fundación and “checking in” to my room for the night there. We would leave for Andalucía at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, so for those students who lived in neighborhoods close to the Fund, extra rooms in the building were offered for the night so that we would not have so far to walk the next day. I quite liked my room: spacious closet, reasonably sized room, nice bathroom. The bed, too, was fine – once I straightened one of the legs of its frame, that is. Beforehand, I tipped my bed toward the ground probably four times before finally deciding to investigate and address the cause of the issue. Even after I straightened the leg, I tried to sleep with as little movement as possible in one small area of the bed; I didn’t want to fall a fifth time!
On Friday, I woke up around 4:30 a.m. to get ready in time for our departure at 5:30 a.m. I am still being surprised by the size of Spain. After France, it is the largest country in Western Europe, and, for comparison, it’s a little over four times the size of Wisconsin. Thus, getting to Córdoba from Toledo required five hours of driving, while getting to Granada from Górdoba took another hour or so. The bus ride to our breakfast stop was a great opportunity to get some more sleep.
I’ve gotten accustomed to and have even developed a liking for my usual breakfast in Toledo of a piece of toast, two pieces of fruit, and black tea. It’s light, healthy, and tasty. Most Spanish breakfasts are at least the first two: it’s very common to snack on some cookies or other dulces (sweets) for the morning meal. Thus, I was flabbergasted when we stopped for breakfast. Rolls, orange juice, water, and pastries were set out on our tables, while a whole array of fruits, yogurt, breads, hardboiled eggs, and other foods awaited us on a long table in the room. Not about to let this opportunity go to waste, I filled my stomach with just about one of everything on hand (except the meat dishes; Lent had started!) and then filled my pocket with a roll and an apple. After breakfast, we hopped back on the bus until reaching Córdoba and meeting our guide for our main destination there: the cathedral.
Many Muslim buildings were completely destroyed or significantly altered during and after the Reconquest of Spain by Christian forces, their materials reused or added to in distinctly Christian manners. The cathedral of Toledo, for instance, is built over the remains of the grand mosque that stood in the city that in turn stood on the remains of a Visigothic church. The cathedral of Córdoba is a singular case, therefore, because it has retained over 85% of its Muslim elements. Outside the worship space remains a large walled plaza where Muslims performed ablutions (washing rituals) before entering the mosque to pray. Muslim women also remained separately in the corridors surrounding the plaza during prayer, as is traditional in both Islam and Judaism. The bell tower of the cathedral was built from and added onto the minaret of the mosque, like many of these towers for calling the faithful to prayer were in the wake of the Reconquest.
The interior of the cathedral is even more striking than its exterior. Arches and double arches with red and white stripes, decorated wooden ceilings (artesonados), and geometric and calligraphic decorations dominate the space. The most important spot of the former mezquita was the mihrab, where the Quran, the most sacred text in Islam, was kept. This wall was usually oriented to Mecca, the most sacred city to Muslims; in the mosque of Córdoba, however, it is oriented solely south instead of southeast toward Mecca. As the most important spot, the mihrab received the most decoration on any place in the mosque, and the spaces closest to it were reserved for the most important people. Córdoba was the capital of an important and independent Muslim kingdom, or caliphate, for centuries, and its caliph served as both a political and religious leader, meaning he and his family and friends received the prime seating around the mihrab. (In the photos below, the qiblah is the third photo going down.) I was awed by the beauty and harmony of the former mosque; any person, I believe, could easily pray and come to deeper awareness in this place. I thank God that at least this mosque was preserved in Spain.
The Christian additions to the building are quite obvious, mainly due to the lack of a prohibition against the depiction of living beings such as humans and animals. One can see a crucified Jesus in the middle of Muslim lobed arches, a simple chapel with tombs of Spanish nobility in its floor, and the imposing and lavishly decorated cathedral space itself built by Carlos I of Spain (V of Germany) in the sixteenth century. The cathedral resembles many other Renaissance churches, as Carlos himself commented (rather unhappily ) on seeing it after its completion, but I still found it quite impressive.
Both before and after our tour of the cathedral-mosque, we walked through and learned about Córdoba’s old city, the majority of which consisted of its judería, or Jewish Quarter. Though now populated mainly by shops, restaurants, and their proprietors, Córdoba, like many cities in Spain during their periods of Muslim rule, had a substantial Jewish population. The most famous of these inhabitants is probably Maimonides, probably the most famous Torah scholar and Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, in addition to a doctor, astronomer, mathematician, and rabbit. A statue of him stands (or, rather, sits, I suppose) just outside of the medieval synagogue of Córdoba; you can see pictures of both below.
Córdoba has another famous citizen, as well, one who lived approximately a millennium before Maimonides. Seneca (the Younger), the well-known Stoic philosopher, writer, and tutor to Nero in the Roman Empire, was born in 4 BCE in the city in what was then the Roman province of Hispania. A statue of him lies just outside the walls of the judería and the old city.
After our tour ended, we were shown where we would be eating for lunch and then given some free time to look around and do as we pleased. My friends and I returned to the old city to get some post cards and other souvenirs, allowing us to again view and appreciate its charming white wall festooned with plants that added bursts of greens and reds, yellows and pinks, to the streets.
Lunch was also a buffet, and I took advantage of the opportunity this presented and took another piece of fruit and another roll. I certainly did not go hungry during the weekend! After the lunch, we bid a fond adios to Córdoba and headed for Granada. I should mention that we headed for Granada in rain, a notably rare occurrence in the hot and dry region of Andalucía. Much of Spain experienced unusually low temperatures and rainfall during this weekend. I must admit that it put a bit of a damper on our tours and activities, but I think everyone still managed to have a great time and be awestruck by the amazing sites and sights we visited and saw.
On arriving in Granada, we went straight to and checked into our hotel, a swanky four-star joint near the center of the city named Meliã (I don’t know why it has a tilde over the “a,” sorry). After a short rest, about half of our group went to a flamenco show in a bar in one of the caves to the north of our hotel in the old city. It was my first espectáculo de flamenco, and I was quite excited for it! The evening at Los Tarantos by no means disappointed. Three dancers, two women and one man; a guitar player; and a singer entered the cave-room where we the spectators were sitting closely packed with our drinks. The basic pattern was that the singer would start vocalizing, the guitarist would soon afterward start playing, and one or more of the dancers would eventually stand up from their seats with the musicisans and perform. Before rising, they would clap their hands and tap their feet in different rhythms to the music and occassionally yell out a phrase, adding to the complexity and vivacity of the performance. For the first half of the show, only the two female dancers performed; after the intermission, only the male dancer did so. All of them danced with visible skill and passion, drawing the audience (or at least this audience member) into the world created by the combination of music, word, and movement.
After the performance, a tour guide took us through the streets of the Old City to the Plaza de San Nicolás, which overlooks the city of Granada and the Alhambra. Braving the wind and chill, we took snapshots of the enchanting palatial complex and the city gleaming below it. After we got back on our bus and back to our hotel, I got ready for and then headed straight to bed, eager for our tour of the Alhambra the next day.
We did not need to meet for our tour to the Alhambra until 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, so that morning I took a walk up the hills from the Meliã and into the old quarter of Granada, which, as in Córdoba, mainly consisted of the former judería. My paseo took me up (and up and up) charming streets lined by cármenes (a cármen is a house with a private garden or courtyard inside) until I reached a park area just below that Alhambra. It was a delightful green space with a great view of Granada, as well, and I was thankful for the cooler weather with all the walking I was doing. After my trip downhill back to the hotel, I eagerly dug into breakfast, even better this morning than the previous morning on the way to Andalucía. There were a large diversity and number of fruits, vegetables, meats, drinks (even champagne), and – my favorite – desserts. I ate as much as I could, delighting in fruits, scrambled eggs, and a pancake dipped in the chocolate I also used for my churro. Needless to say, it was a very good morning.
After breakfast, our group got on the bus and traveled to the Alhambra, where we were split into two groups to tour through the complex. The Alhambra, Spain’s most visited location and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has existed in some form since at least the ninth century, but it did not take on the large size and exquisite architectural style admired today until the appearance in the 13th century of the Nasrid dynasty. The Nasrids were a line of emirs that ruled Granada until its final conquest by the Spanish in 1492. Granada had belonged to the caliphate of Córdoba, but it had split into smaller separate kingdoms called taifas in 1031; Granada was the last such kingdom to be reconquered.
I could write an entire blog post (and more) about the Alhambra, but 1) I do not have the time or energy for that and 2) you most likely do not have interest in reading all there is to know about it. Thus, if you want to learn more about the complex in general or about one of its parts that I visited, head to its official website; it does a much better job than I would and doesn’t make painful plays on words. I will give brief explanations of the photos I have in relation to our tour, however.
First, we walked through the gardens, including reflecting pools, fruit trees (such as the naranjo, or orange tree, pictured on the right), and hedge walls. The gardens, when built, reflected the Muslim concept of heaven as a verdant oasis (much like the Christian Garden of Eden). They also provided an aesthetically pleasing, cool, and quiet place to pray or relax in the heat of the Andalusian summer (or, basically, most of the year). Much of the Alhambra palace was built with both beauty and practicality in mind.
Saturday: walk around the judería before breakfast; breakfast (even better than Friday); tour of the Alhambra, impressive despite the cold and rain (odd for Granada, but apparently common for all of our tours, happened across Spain); la comida at a Moroccan restaurant, walk around the shops (lots of souvenirs); tour of the cathedral (“free” is not free, 3.50 euro), illegal pictures; more souvenirs (azafrán); return to the hotel; a walk, gelato, and pasta with pesto; Arab baths and a massage with lavender oil, one of the best experiences of my life, a nice guy from Canada; bed
Many rooms in the Alhambra had fantastic views of Granada. You can’t see those views below, but you can see the amazing architecture that one can find everywhere in the complex. The windows were and are often covered with lattices (celosías), blocking light (and thus heat) from the outside and also maintaining the privacy of the interior, a key concern for most Muslim households. Beauty in Muslim architecture is to be found within an edifice, in its courtyards and hallways and inner walls. The outsides of these buildings often look remarkably plain or even drab, but that was intentional in their design.
Being the immense (one might say “palatial”) palatial complex that it was, the Alhambra had its own village for both its noble inhabitants and the people who served them. This trend continued with the Catholic takeover of the site. Carlos I built the imposing facade you see in the first two pictures below and the perfectly circular structure behind it that you see in the third, all a reflection of the Renaissance admiration and emulation of Greek and Roman antiquity.
After this building came the most decorated and famous palaces of the Alhambra. The few photos below will give you only an inkling of the breathtaking art in tile, calligraphy, stonework, painting, and architecture that surrounds one who walks through the halls of these buildings.
The roof of one of the rooms in the palaces deserves special mention, as it reflects the traditional Muslim belief in seven levels of heaven. The seventh level, as symbolized by the central, raised star and circle in the ceiling, was that of purest bliss in the most immediate presence of God, leading to the phrase “seventh heaven” as a reference to some immense happiness.
The reflection pool in the courtyard and the guard tower above it show the preference in Muslim architecture for beauty in the inner, private sphere rather than the outer, public sphere.
The Plaza de los Leones (Plaza of the Lions) also deserves a special mention, as much for the marvelously carved arches surrounding it as for the central fountain that provides its name, in my opinion. Twelve lions (actually, six lions and six lionesses), surround a fountain in the middle of this square, though they look hardly anything like the feline predator of the African savannah. There are various theories as to the reason for this: the artist may never have seen a lion, or may have intentionally changed the forms of the statues to somewhat lessen the breach of Islam’s prohibition against the depiction of living beings. The roof of one of the adjoining chambers to the plaza simply stunned me.
As I noted above, the Alhambra has a commanding view of Granada from its hilltop position.
The Alhambra actually had a lot of this stained glass in it in its period of use. This is the only remaining section of it. The picture below this shows another central courtyard through the frame of an arc.
One could spend a full day (and more) in the Alhambra, but we were fortunate enough to have guided tours and thus got a good sense of the complex in a little over two hours. I was and am so elated and thankful to have gotten the chance to see and learn about this treasure of the word.
After our tour ended, we went back to the hotel, from which a few of my friends and I went about ten minutes for lunch at a Moroccan restaurant. The food was quite simply delicious: I had harira (a soup) and chicken tagine (tajine, a stew of meat and vegetables cooked slowly in a shallow dish, typical in North Africa). I also got to try the falafel and hummus my friends had and the desserts served after our meal, all of which I found quite tasty. The meal helped serve the turkey-schwarma-shaped hole I’ve had in my heart since leaving St. Norbert College and its delicious cafeteria fare.
After lunch, we wandered through the streets surrounding the restaurant as we made our way to the cathedral of Granada. There were a lot of tourist stores, as you can see below. I almost felt as though we were in the stereotypical Middle-Eastern marketplace, though in this case the prices were fixed and it definitely was not a sunny, harsh desert day. Still, I found some great items for myself and others, and it was cool simply to walk past all the shops.
The cathedral of Granada, with the official name of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, is (if I remember correctly) the second-largest church in Spain. It was built after the capture of the city in 1492 and also reflects Renaissance ideas and ideals concerning architecture and style. It is an imposing building that, unfortunately, has a ban on photographs in its interior. My visit inside was still pleasant, however, with the prohibition forcing me to spend more time contemplating the beauty surrounding me more than I would have otherwise.
Once we exited the cathedral, we made our way back to our hotel. I went for a walk, some gelato, and some pasta (in that order) a bit later in the evening before heading to Hammam Al Ándalus Arab Baths, where I had a reservation for 10 p.m. For an hour and a half, I enjoyed a series of pools of different temperatures (hot, moderate, and cold), sweetened peppermint tea, a 15-minute massage with lavender oil, and an atmosphere of tranquility and contemplation. It was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life and certainly not a bad way to have my first bona-fide massage (warmup backrubs in chorus don’t really count, I think). After my time in the baths, I went back to the hotel and gratefully went to bed.
On Sunday morning, after enjoying the buffet breakfast for the last time (¡qué lástima!), I attended Mass in the cathedral with my friends Ariel and Lexi. Like the cathedral in Toledo, Granada’s cathedral has a separate space for celebrations of the Mass, but, unlike Toledo, this chapel is pretty much cut off from the rest of the building. A few doors, blocked to prevent people coming in or out of the space, are the only connections with the cathedral proper.
We thought we arrived just in time for Mass at 11 a.m., but we soon realized that we had arrived just in time for Lauds (morning prayer) before Mass at 11:30 a.m. Both this period of prayer and the service that followed were interesting to both observe and participate in, the latter thanks especially to the energy and affability of the presiding priest.
After the Mass, we walked around the shops surrounding the cathedral a bit and then at 1 p.m. returned to the hotel, where another buffet – this one for lunch – was awaiting us. It was another delicious (and heavy!) meal; I even got to try one of the typical foods of Andalucia, roasted eggplant (berenjena). After lunch, we retrieved our luggage, boarded the bus, and started our return voyage to Toledo. For our entertainment on the way, our directors put Star Wars IV and V on the bus’s screens. De cajón (obviously), they were dubbed with Spanish voices, which made for an interesting and sometimes amusing viewing of the famous films. At 7:30 p.m., we arrived in Toledo, and from the bus stop I walked to my host family’s house, grateful to have gone on the trip with the Fund and now to have returned from it.
On Sunday night, I finally settled on my practice for Lent. As you may or may not know, reader, I struggle with low self-confidence, as well as a tendency to project this antagonism toward myself toward other people, leading me to be judgmental or inhospitable. For Lent, I am committing myself to “fast” (ayunar) from negativity toward self and others. On my Facebook page, I will post one positive aspect of myself each week, as well as one post pointing out the goodness of another person. My practice does not mean I will not make mistakes, be too hard on myself or others, or otherwise sin; I’m still human, of course. Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation, in this case for the joy brought by the Resurrection of Jesus and its promise of a new life and a new or fulfilled creation. We do not earn this new life; it has been given to us and is continually offered to us by God. Our task is to prepare ourselves to accept this gift gratefully through our lives here and now, and I think my Lenten practice, more than fasting from a certain food or saying more prayers, will help me do this.
I’m also going to try and be more outgoing and personable this Lent, to not fear so much what other people think of me and to care more about being kind toward them while being myself. I think that whenever I do so, I make more and more genuine connections with the people around me and we all benefit from this. I was (and still am) extremely happy and grateful to have done this during the weekend in Andalucía, because it allowed me to make new friendships and strengthen existing ones. Therefore, to all those who showed me friendship, traveled with me, and laughed with me: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
And to you, reader, I give thanks also! These posts can often become very long, so I appreciate you sticking with this until the end. Until the next post, ¡adios!